Ryan Rides to the Rescue — But Not Until 2020

by Stuart Rothenberg May 4, 2016 · 3:30 PM EDT

I recently asked a veteran Republican strategist how his party picks up the pieces after what now looks to be a very difficult 2016 election. His answer was quick and decisive: Paul Ryan.

If November’s elections are as messy for the GOP as they now appear, with Republicans failing once again to win the White House and also losing their Senate majority, Ryan would almost certainly become his party’s de facto leader – and that would offer him both opportunities and challenges after the election.

The Wisconsin Republican’s prospects, and those of his party, surely would depend on how President Hillary Clinton performs in office, as well as how Ryan handles his roles of party spokesman, party strategist and House leader.

Trump’s candidacy, after all, is not about ideology or strategy. It is only, and always, about Trump.

If Trump loses the general election, as seems very likely, the GOP’s movement conservative and pragmatic conservative wings will each use that outcome to argue that the party must nominate someone of their liking. That would mean another fight pitting Ted Cruz (and possibly others) against a more pragmatic hopeful, once again dividing Republicans.

Enter Ryan, the speaker of the House and one of the few high profile Republicans who could appeal to both groups.

Ryan will be a more mature (and presidential) 50 years old at that point, a Wisconsin conservative who is currently regarded by conservatives as fair and trustworthy. Pragmatists, and most in the media, see Ryan as a policy wonk open to new ideas and creative approaches, not an ideologue looking for confrontation and government shutdowns.

Ryan would be the perfect challenger to Clinton, then 73 years old, an unapologetic liberal and a veteran of the national political wars for close to 30 years.

If Clinton defeats Trump easily, her convincing victory would likely help Democrats sweep all (or at least most) of the competitive Senate races this year, handing the Senate to New York Sen. Chuck Schumer and his party. That would make Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell the minority leader instead of the majority leader, dramatically altering his role in the Senate.

If Republicans hold onto the House, even with a greatly diminished majority, which now is the most likely outcome, Ryan would automatically become the highest ranking Republican in the nation’s capital and the leader in the GOP war against Clinton.

That would both enhance Ryan’s stature and make him Clinton’s most obvious challenger in four years. And after 12 consecutive years of a Democrat in the White House and a liberal agenda on taxes, the environment and business regulation, that wouldn’t be a bad place to be for the Republican nominee for president, especially given Ryan’s unique ability to drive his party’s legislative agenda.

But this rosy scenario regarding Ryan isn’t the only possible way that 2017 and 2018 could play out.

As his party’s national point man after the 2016 elections, Ryan could well find himself stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place.

Given the animosity that Republicans harbor for Clinton, the speaker’s House colleagues presumably would demand that he oppose every White House initiative and look for reasons to investigate executive branch actions and the president’s behavior.

But others, including those in the media, would expect him to work with Democrats, both on Capitol Hill and in the White House, avoiding a government shutdown and looking for ways to deal with some of the nation’s festering problems.

Like John Boehner before him, Ryan could find himself a prisoner of his own caucus, which would be smaller after the 2016 elections and include fewer members who represent politically competitive districts. Instead of Ryan helping to redefine the GOP, the party might redefine him – or at least make it easy for Clinton to further demonize all Republicans.

Then there is the question of how Clinton would perform in office. She could turn out to be more of a pragmatist than an ideologue, making herself less of a target for re-election.

And if the country turns out to be unhappy with her leadership, wouldn’t that guarantee another crowded GOP field against her in 2020? In that case, Ryan might well be just one of many seeking his party’s nomination, an outcome that might make the race less appealing to him and his family.

Unless things change substantially between now and November, the Republican Party is headed for a damaging general election, with plenty of finger-pointing and hand-wringing. But, if you are a Republican, history offers great comfort.

Four years after Barry Goldwater’s ignominious defeat in 1964, Republicans won the White House. Four years after George McGovern was demolished in 1972, Democrats won the White House. And four years after Michael Dukakis suffered his party’s third straight presidential defeat, Democrat Bill Clinton won the White House.

For Paul Ryan, that is good news. The bigger concern is whether Republicans can unite behind a candidate with Ryan’s strengths, and whether he will look as formidable in 2020 as he does now.