It’s fascinating (if somewhat predictable) to watch the rapidly diverging post-election prospects of the two members of the Republican presidential ticket. Mitt Romney is going to disappear from public view approximately ten minutes after his usefulness expires as a scapegoat for his party’s sins. But Paul Ryan is back in Washington, and back in the saddle again. This sentence from the New York Times’ Jennifer Steinhauer nicely describes his pivotal position with his party colleagues:

When Mr. Ryan returned to Capitol Hill last week, he was met with a standing ovation from his Republican colleagues, a bear hug from Mr. Boehner and the hope from conservatives that he would hold the line on taxes and other spending.

Yeah, Boehner’s hugging Ryan, all right, making it clear the Budget Committee Chairman is a key, and maybe the key, figure in the fiscal negotiations with the Obama administration and congressional Democrats. Whatever Boehner decides to do, he wants Ryan’s finger-prints all over it. And the more feral of House Republicans want Ryan very close to Boehner’s side to keep the Speaker from selling out America’s priceless heritage of freedom and low top marginal tax rates.

Presumably Ryan will seek to reprise his role in earlier fiscal negotiations, re-establishing his MSM reputation as a “thoughtful” conservative “reformer” who always manages to be heavily involved in bipartisan discussions until the crucial point, when he invariably opposes compromise on one pretext or another. If, as sometimes appears to be the case, Boehner’s whole strategy in the fiscal talks is to kick the crucial cans down the road for a few more months, Ryan can perhaps remain suspended in his current position of ambiguity long enough to plot his own future course. He could, if he wishes, earn the enteral groveling admiration of MSM deficit hawks by giving ideological cover to a deal that might otherwise fail in the House. Or he could quietly shiv Boehner even as the permatanned Ohioan snuggles him so closely that Ryan will have to shower twice to expunge the smell of cigarettes and fear.

It’s certainly not the kind of catbird seat Ryan might have imagined occupying had Romney won and Republicans conquered the Senate: field-marshaling from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue a legislative blitzkrieg to enact his own radical budget blueprint on a party-line vote, with the repeal of Obamacare served as a tasty side dish and perhaps a Supreme Court appointment certain to repeal reproductive rights for dessert. But given the circumstances, Ryan’s in pretty good shape. His main quandry may well be to determine which short-term path will best serve his long-range goal of destroying or disabling much of the progressive policy legacy of the 20th century: an austerity-flavoted fiscal deal that can later be described as the first step back from the Road to Serfdom, or an ideological war leading into an old-white-voter-dominated midterm election and then 2016?

Watching Ryan closely in the months ahead will be profitable if not fun.

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Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.