Paul Ryan: Self-declared shadow presidential nominee

Speaker Paul Ryan tells Eliana Johnson that he’s doing his part to help Republicans in the 2017 presidential election by acting as a shadow nominee, putting forward a broad-based policy platform that the Republican nominee can adopt after emerging from the scrum. How generous of him.

What Ryan wants to do, of course, is seize as much control as he can over Republican policy and, if possible, constrain the eventual GOP nominee. Only Ryan could portray this as a favor. But then, think of all the family time he’s graciously forfeiting.

We’ve seen this act from Ryan before. In 2011, he pushed his entitlement reform package through the House even though it had no chance of being enacted but certainly would provide fodder for powerful Democratic attack ads characterizing the Republican Party as wanting to harm senior citizens. Ryan was shaping the debate to suit himself, his Party’s electoral interests be damned.

This time, Ryan says he wants to unite the Party around an agenda that includes simplifying the tax code, fixing entitlement programs, and reforming the country’s criminal justice system. Ryan is being disingenuous. Republicans can’t unite around criminal justice reform, at least not the kind that Team Leniency, of which Ryan is a member, has in mind.

The Party is split on this issue. Key Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, including Sen. Jeff Sessions, voted against the bipartisan reform bill pushed by Sen. Mike Lee. As for the public, most Americans don’t want the justice system to go easier on drug dealers, as Lee’s bill would, and this must even be more true of Republican voters.

Ryan’s gambit is not, then, about unity or consensus. It’s a power grab — an attempt to leverage his position as Speaker into a vehicle for pushing his policy preferences, including his desire (probably religiously-based) to go easier on certain criminals. This is about what Paul Ryan prefers, not about what unites the Party or maximizes its election prospects.

Outside of the Republican establishment bubble, Ryan is not a unifying figure. Hard-core conservatives that I speak to in Washington don’t trust him (and neither do I). Many see him, in essence, as a tool of establishment interests who is being played by Democrats. (The Speaker doesn’t dispel this image when he throws a holiday party for members of the Congressional Black Caucus, “breaks bread” with Nancy Pelosi or boasts to Eliana about targeting constituencies beyond the Republican base.)

Some may dismiss conservative such anti-Ryan sentiment as fringe thinking. But if we believe the polls, such thinking isn’t fringe. It is animating the campaigns of the two leading Republican candidates for president — Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

Eliana concludes her article with this:

Though he hopes to quell the internecine warfare that has plagued Republicans for much of the Obama years, it’s clear that Ryan’s version of going on offense will also include pushing back at the internal forces he considers a threat to the party’s future.

Exactly. This is why Ryan has nominated himself as the GOP’s shadow presidential candidate.

But it’s the real nominee who should set the Republican agenda in an election year. And if Ryan pushes back too hard against that agenda, he won’t just fan the flames of internecine warfare, he may split the Party in two.