The reluctant Mr. Ryan

Is Paul Ryan the Republican Hamlet or is he destined to be treated more like Julius Caesar?

Rep. Paul Ryan, the GOP's reluctant candidate for House speaker, has taken a lot of flak in recent days for the variety of conditions he has set before agreeing to run for the job. He wants broad support across his party, including from the defiant Freedom Caucus, he wants changes to certain House rules that he finds inconvenient, and he doesn't want to spend a lot of time on the road away from his family to raise money for members.

On top of that, some Republicans are appalled not only by his Hamlet-like reluctance to accept such an important post but by his oversize ego. Asked Tuesday why he was now willing to run for speaker after weeks resisting the post, he said: "I came to the conclusion that this is a very dire moment, not just for Congress, not just for the Republican Party, but for our country, and I think our country is in desperate need of leadership."

To which we can only say, bravo. That's right. We rise to the defense of Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney's 2012 running mate and current Ways and Means Committee chairman and GOP "budget expert" with whom we have often (OK, almost always) disagreed. On this occasion, he's right. House Republicans need party discipline that only a strong speaker can provide.

What Mr. Ryan is attempting to do is not merely stroke his own ego but build that unity. If the caucus elects him but then gives him the John Boehner treatment — refusing to compromise on any meaningful issues and them blaming it all on leadership — what good will he have accomplished other than ruin his own political ambitions? Take a look around: Ex-speakers make lousy candidates for president, the only one to have been elevated to the White House being James K. Polk, the nation's 11th president, and only after he first went back to Tennessee to serve as governor.

So yes, Mr. Ryan is making something of a personal sacrifice, and he ought to extract whatever concessions he can from his fellow Republicans. He's not asking members to abandon their principles, he's expecting them to act as a political party — with all the responsibilities and opportunities that come along with that distinction.

What ails his chamber right now is not a lack of speakers, it's the presence of 247 people who have pledged loyalty only to themselves. The GOP has become so divided, not just with moderates against conservatives but even within the conservative ranks, that nothing can get done. There's enough dissension to invoke paralysis — or perhaps a government shutdown — and the current Republican voter infatuation with "outsiders," particularly the bomb-throwing Donald Trump, threatens to make the situation worse.

Mr. Ryan needs to ride a wave of good will (and political IOUs) into the job or he will not be able to govern. And frankly, it's not yet clear that this is even a possibility, given the grumblings coming out of the Freedom Caucus about his "list of demands." But the reality is that it's the conservatives' demands — essentially for greater autonomy for the rank-and-file and a less powerful speaker — that ought to be regarded as a deal-breaker.

Democrats may be tempted to look on this situation with glee, hoping that a failure of Republicans to govern will improve their electoral prospects. But before they give in fully to schadenfreude, they need to consider the very real and immediate consequences if the House can't enact crucial business like approving federal spending bills or raising the debt ceiling. We've seen in recent years what happens in both cases, and it's not pretty.

Should the Ryan candidacy fail, what is the GOP's Plan B? It looks like a potential free-for-all with no one with the experience or resume of Mr. Ryan anywhere to be found.

Yet even someone as well-regarded as Mr. Ryan can't govern without the consent of the governed. Until the tea party wing recognizes that much more can be accomplished when Republicans act in unity then in cross-purposes, it won't really matter who takes the top job. As Abraham Lincoln observed in quite a different context, a house divided against itself cannot stand. But can a party so enamored of obstructionism and opposed to moderation really coalesce behind anyone? Mr. Ryan may not be Abraham Lincoln, but he might be the party's — and the nation's — best chance.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
34°