Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Paul Ryan would have to be nuts to take speaker's gavel

Paul Ryan would have to be nuts to accept the job of speaker.

Already, even as he denies any interest in the job, the one-time conservative wunderkind is being attacked by those who condemn him as insufficiently conservative, insufficiently pure to serve as speaker. While he sits at home in Janesville, Wisc., pondering calls to be the savior of his party, those whom he is supposed to lead are preparing a big, bright "RINO" sign to drape around his neck when he returns.

And take a look at this lead from a Politico story:

"As the right continues to beat up Paul Ryan, hoping to preempt a bid for speaker, much of the GOP establishment is letting him twist in the wind.

Their thinking: Any public display of affection for Ryan from D.C. players would be his kiss of death — handing ammunition to activists to use against the Ways and Means chairman.

But the groups’ approach means that there’s no organized response to a chorus of figures and groups on the activist right — from Phyllis Schlafly and Sean Hannity to the Tea Party Patriots — imploring House Republicans to oppose Ryan."

That tells you a lot about the power dynamics. The Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and other groups are so intimidated that they don't dare to speak up in defense of the man whom most of them believe represents the GOP's only shot at something less than chaos in the House. Even as they quietly beg and pray that Ryan can be convinced to take the job, they themselves won't risk fighting for him publicly.

And if they can't defend him now, Ryan should realize, they surely won't be there to defend him in the coming intra-party fights over the debt-limit ceiling, immigration and the 2016 budget.

It's also important to note where this opposition to Ryan is really coming from. Ostensibly, it is originating in the so-called Freedom Caucus, an ultra-conservative group that comprises just 15 percent of the overall GOP caucus. It has two members from Georgia, Jody Hice and Barry Loudermilk, which ought to tell you all you need to know about its intellectual heft and grasp on reality.

So how is it that such a small group of untethered, extremist malcontents is able to wield such veto power over the Grand Old Party? Ah, that's the big question, now isn't it. As the Politico piece points out, the real power behind the throne, the opposition that truly matters, are right-wing media, websites and interest groups. And to hear them tell it, Ryan's ascension to the speaker's podium would be yet another betrayal of the conservative cause.

Why do they say that? Because that's what they do for a living. Betrayal, outrage and fear are how they justify their email fund-raising, it is how they draw ratings points and Internet clicks, it is how they get themselves on Fox News. It is the meat upon which they feed, and they feed very well these days.

Thus, Rush Limbaugh confides to his listeners that "a lot of people think Paul Ryan has sold out." At RedState, Erick Erickson derides Ryan as "John Boehner's weaker sister" "poor little Paulie," and  "poor little Eddie Munster Rep. Paul Ryan."  Jenny Beth Martin of Tea Party Patriots condemns Ryan as "anything but conservative" and completely unacceptable to the party's base.

"There is a reason why Donald Trump and [Ben] Carson and Carly Fiorina are doing so well in the polls right now,” Martin says. “People are very dissatisfied with what’s happening in Washington.” And with her $450,000 income, Martin would have it no other way.

What's really telling about all this is that just three years ago, these very same people were gleeful that Mitt Romney had selected a conservative of Ryan's stature to be his vice presidential nominee. As Erickson put it at the time "Finally, the Romney campaign has a spokesman who can do what Mitt Romney has never been capable of doing — defend success and articulate a message of why we must reform our nation's budget and support free markets." ("The left will demonize and demagogue Paul Ryan," Erickson also predicted back then. "They’d do that to anyone.")

Conservatives like to talk about "revolution" and "the Washington establishment." It's time to face up to the fact that once the "revolution" has been professionalized and institutionalized, it is no longer the revolution. It becomes the new establishment, and that is the state of affairs today within the GOP. Reince Priebus may have the fancy title of chair of the Republican National Committee, but he has less influence over the party's direction today than does some local talk radio host in Dallas or St. Louis or Atlanta. Priebus and his pals can also produce all the white papers they want, explaining in logical, rational terms why the party's future depends on a resolution of the immigration issue, but they are spitting into a gale by doing so.

It is the new GOP establishment that decides who in the party is a "true conservative," and who is not, and that awesome power means everything. In this case, it has ordained the Freedom Caucus, the ultra-conservative fringe of a deeply conservative House, as the true keepers of the conservative flame, and by doing so it gives that caucus a power that it could never otherwise enjoy. It is also the new establishment that demands the election of a mythical "true conservative" as speaker, even though it knows or ought to know that goal to be unattainable.

Because after all, what's the use of setting an attainable goal? A goal attained produces satisfaction, an outcome completely at odds with their business model. Unattainable goals guarantee frustration, anger, resentment and feelings of persecution, all of which are so much more useful in peddling gold, guns, God and blood-pressure medicine.



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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.