Catbird Seat

There’s a long new profile of Paul Ryan done by Mark Leibovich for the New York Times Magazine that’s part campaign travelogue, part abbreviated biography, and part political analysis. The biographical sections make Ryan look like more of the nerdy career congressional staffer than the steely-eyed social darwinist (there is not one mention of the woman Ryan himself treated as a mentor not that long ago, Ayn Rand). Liebovich does nicely nail Ryan’s much-remarked-on ability to combine a reputation for wonkiness with exceptional vagueness, calling him “deft at conveying precision and specificity without being the least bit precise or specific.”

But the real thrust of the piece, reflected in its title (“Paul Ryan Can’t Lose”), is that Ryan is really in the catbird seat: if Romney wins, he gets a starring role in the radical fiscal game-plan of the administration, and if Obama wins, he remains in Congress as the new reigning star of the GOP and the conservative movement, receiving (now that he’s gotten through his debate with Biden) no blame for a loss that will be attributed by conservatives either to Romney’s many limitations or to the incumbent’s devilishly seductive vote-buying prowess and the active assistance of the media.

Leibovich doesn’t get that much into the internal dynamics of the Republican Party or the possible 2016 landscape, but it’s true Ryan would be in a good position on November 7 if he’s not headed to the White House. He is equally beloved by the libertarian and cultural-Right wings of the conservative movement. And the long list of possible ’16 candidates might actually work to his favor. After all, conservatives wound up with presidential nominees they didn’t like or trust in both 2008 and 2012 because they did not consolidate support behind a single ideologically righteous candidate. They can be expected to be sure to avoid this sort of demolition derby next time around, and while you can make a case for Rubio or Jebbie or McDonnell or Bobby J. or Paul the Younger or perhaps someone we’re not thinking about just yet, no one has the unblemished record or movement-wide popularity of Ryan. And he’ll have the private and public vetting and the national campaign experience the others all lack behind him.

Giving movement conservatives a future presidential candidate was almost certainly part of the calculus that led Romney to choose Ryan to be his running-mate–along with the assessment, which has turned out to be accurate, that low-information swing voters knew nothing of the Boogeyman reputation Ryan had developed among progressive activists, which he could brush aside with some high-profile dishonesty about his policy preferences. And Team Mitt also knew conservatives would be much less likely to carp about the campaign strategy of a ticket with their maximum hero on it. So it’s worked out pretty well for everyone involved.

It’s always possible Ryan will commit a notable gaffe that hurts the ticket and his own ambitions. And Leibovich briefly mentions the difficult position Ryan might be placed in if Romney were to win and then tried to double-cross conservatives. Since the whole Moderate Mitt Meme is pretty much a rhetorical construct that hasn’t, so far, required any significant changes of position or primary season promise-breaking (given the speed with which Team Mitt walked back his suggestion that he wasn’t interested in abortion legislation), that scenario remains remote. And so Paul Ryan marches towards November 6 with few clouds on his horizons, Lord help us.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.