Paul Ryan: 2016’s Ultimate Dark Horse?

Credit: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
Credit: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

What happens to vice presidential candidates on losing tickets? There are several models for VP nominees who fail to win election. From 2008, there’s the Palin model: avoid elected office, build enormous grassroots influence. From 2004, there’s the Edwards model: remain in office as a senator, build credibility for the top spot next time around. From 2000, the Lieberman model: expand influence in a national legislative body. So which of these does 2012’s failed vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan follow? The nomination of the representative from Wisconsin was an attempt by the Romney campaign to please the more conservative wing of the GOP; at the same time, Ryan also enjoys support from the party’s moderate establishment. Ever since President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden won re-election, Rep. Ryan has not been too visible on the national stage. Other potential GOP candidates, like Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio, have been visible. So what has Paul Ryan been doing?

In the tumultuous year of 2013, Ryan has been consistently quiet, but at least he has been consistent. Marco Rubio was showing well in polls at the beginning of the year, but his support of the bipartisan immigration reform bill in the Senate hurt him among many conservatives. Ted Cruz remains popular with the Tea Party wing, but has earned the scorn of many moderate conservatives. Chris Christie’s recent re-election made him the darling of many Republicans, but the New Jersey governor is viewed with skepticism by many of the most conservative members in the GOP. Paul Ryan’s support has not reached the size of Rubio’s, or Cruz’s, or Christie’s, but his support has remained steady.

At the same time, Ryan, unlike many other 2016 GOP potentials, has another option: power in the U.S. House of Representatives. In February of this year, writers at Politico reported that “instead [of a 2016 candidacy], Ryan seems increasingly intrigued with the prospect of amassing more power within Congress…” However, Paul Ryan remains a viable potential candidate in 2016 for the Oval Office. His RealClearPolitics polling average from September 9 to October 31 was 12.3%, behind only Chris Christie (17.0%) and Rand Paul (16.5%). Eleanor Clift summarized Ryan’s position in an August article for The Daily Beast:

“[Paul Ryan’s] low profile amidst the intra-party squabbling suggests he is deftly positioning himself as Speaker in waiting or the GOP’s last best hope for 2016…”

What would a Speaker Ryan mean for the GOP? In light of the current Speaker’s problems in managing the Republican caucus, Paul Ryan would probably be an improvement, due to his credibility with moderates and members of the Tea Party. His relative youth would also help improve the GOP’s congressional image. However, such close association with congressional Republicans would forever end Ryan’s aspirations, if any, for the Presidency.

What would a Candidate Ryan mean? The divided Republican Party has few viable candidates who could bridge the gap between far-right and center-right; Ryan could be one of these candidates. Even if he wasn’t nominated, Ryan could still wield enormous influence in the primaries, and help shape the GOP’s 2016 ticket. His connection to failed candidate Mitt Romney would prove unhelpful, however.

In the end, Paul Ryan’s post-2012 posture has combined moves of the previous failed VP candidates. He lacks Palin’s “buzz”, but still can play kingmaker in some GOP circles; he has Edwards’ strategy of maintaining a support base for a future candidacy; he also patterns Lieberman’s rise in influence in Congress. In October, Tim Alberta of the National Journal described Ryan as “changing tack.” The reality is that Paul Ryan has both the Speakership and the Presidency on his potential political menu. Having so many options makes Ryan the ultimate dark horse in the GOP’s 2016 primary.

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