The "Draft Paul Ryan" fantasy: A soothing fiction to make donor-class Republicans feel better

GOP insiders are fooling themselves into believing Paul Ryan is a viable alternative to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz

Published April 4, 2016 8:26PM (EDT)

Paul Ryan (Jeffrey Malet,
Paul Ryan (Jeffrey Malet,

The enthusiasm bubbling around Ted Cruz’s campaign to derail Donald Trump’s surge to the Republican presidential nomination can’t disguise the fact that establishment Republicans, by and large, hate Ted Cruz. GOP bigwigs like Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush are on Team Cruz for no other reason than he represents the lesser of two evils. Cruz, for his part, is happy to have their backing, but he knows that while they half-heartedly mutter “vote Cruz,” their hearts are screaming for someone else.

These poorly hidden desires and frustrations of the Republican establishment find a safely anonymous voice this morning in Mike Allen’s Politico Playbook:

One of the nation’s best-wired Republicans, with an enviable prediction record for this cycle, sees a 60% chance of a convention deadlock, and a 90% chance that delegates turn to Ryan – ergo, a 54% chance that Ryan, who’ll start the third week of July as chairman of the Republican National Convention, will end it as the nominee. “He’s the most conservative, least establishment member of the establishment,” the Republican source said. “That’s what you need to be.”

And here we see the value of Playbook – where else in political journalism can an anonymous GOP insider convert their gut feelings into precise calculations describing the high probability of a fantasy presidential outcome?

This Draft Ryan movement arises out of both the Republican establishment’s love of Ryan as a politician and their distaste for Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Ryan is the affable mascot of the Republican donor class: he’s young, ambitious, and prioritizes massive tax cuts for the wealthy alongside boosted military spending and huge cuts to social programs. He’ll bring back Reaganomics and turn Social Security into what it was always meant to be: a bonanza for Wall Street. Ryan has also emerged as the GOP’s savior-by-default, being the only Republican of national prominence who evinces basic political competence and/or isn’t actively loathed by huge swaths of the party.

But only someone who has been determinedly ignoring every political development over the past year could possibly believe that parachuting Paul Ryan into the presidential nominating contest at the last second will fix what ails the GOP. Go back and look at the exit polls for the Republican primaries and you’ll quickly see a theme emerge: Republican voters don’t just dislike the GOP establishment, they feel betrayed by the party. In New Hampshire, where Trump dominated, half of the Republican electorate felt the party had betrayed them. In Ohio, 57 percent of Republicans told exit pollsters that they felt betrayed, while in North Carolina the number was 54 percent. These numbers repeat themselves in state after state, all over the country. Now imagine what happens when all those Republican voters who griped about the party establishment’s betrayal see the party establishment toss the candidates they voted for off to the side so that the Speaker of the House can be installed as the Republican presidential candidate – the same Speaker who ran on the last Republican ticket and lost badly.

Per the donor-class fantasy, Ryan emerges triumphant from the convention and unites the party (everyone from Grover Norquist to Charles Koch) as he cruises to victory in November with an undeniably appealing platform centered on cutting taxes for the wealthy and making poor people sign contracts promising to stop being poor. In the real world, Ryan would face persistent and unanswerable questions about his legitimacy as a nominee who spent zero days campaigning for the nomination. At the same time, erstwhile frontrunner Donald Trump goes on a scorched-earth campaign deriding the GOP for ignoring the voters and elevating “loser” Paul Ryan to the top of the ticket. (And, for what it’s worth, hypothetical match-ups show Ryan losing badly to both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.)

Whatever enthusiasm there is for Paul Ryan as the 2016 nominee exists because there are still influential people within the party who refuse to acknowledge just how damaged Republican politics have become. They’re clinging to the palliative fiction that all the fissures Trump and Cruz have ripped open and exploited can be mended simply by nominating a sufficiently charismatic vessel for donor-class Republicanism. It didn’t work with Marco Rubio, and there’s no reason to think Paul Ryan will have any more success.

By Simon Maloy

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