The Political Capital To Counsel Delay of Ideological Gratification

In a parallel meditation on Paul Ryan as the potential savior of the House GOP, New York‘s Jonathan Chait makes a persuasive argument that Ryan’s ideological bona fides is so strong that he and only he can convince restive and angry conservatives to delay ideological gratification until that great gittin’ up morning when Republicans control the federal government and can work their terrible will on the nation.

What actually separates the insurgents from the Establishment is not ideology but tactics. The insurgents refuse to accept the constitutional limits of their power, and believe that more frenzied assertions of their core beliefs, combined with a periodic willingness to shut down the government and threaten a currency default, can prevail over President Obama through force of will. The insurgents mistakenly interpret disagreements over means as disagreements over ends; when Republican leaders express reluctance to shut down the government over Obamacare or Planned Parenthood, the insurgents take this as actual support for those programs.

What makes Ryan so perfectly suited to bridge this divide is that he perfectly combines ideological extremism with methodological pragmatism.

Chait attributes Ryan’s “methodological pragmatism” to the influence of Ayn Rand, and I’m not so sure about that. But there’s no question the dude knows when to hold ’em and when to ‘fold ’em:

Ryan has consistently opposed serious compromise of the party doctrine on taxing the rich and scaling back the welfare state. But he displayed an intense pragmatism. In 2013, facing a revolt by Republican defense hawks against scheduled budget cuts, he negotiated a small compromise measure that relieved some of the budgetary pressure on the Pentagon. He managed to sell this deal to a majority of his caucus. Ryan has always understood that his chance to enact his vision of the state will only come when his party gains full control of government. The insurgent wing understands that his patience is not a delaying tactic.

It’s this last thing that may be the crucial ingredient in Ryan’s appeal to the wacko birds: they have no doubt he shares their principals and goals, and that strategic and tactical arguments that might look like excuses for perpetual inaction when coming from a John Boehner or a Kevin McCarthy are sincere. Toss in a few procedural concessions to the Freedom Caucus in terms of their opportunities for “input” and some patronage goodies, and you may have a deal.

And there’s probably no end to the gratitude Establishment Republicans will feel towards Ryan if he succeeds in quelling intraparty turmoil long enough to get to the November 2016 elections.

Chait thinks this just solidifies a position of power Ryan has long held:

No other figure within the party combines Ryan’s philosophical radicalism and tactical pragmatism. Ryan has understandable reasons to stay away from a job that, since the days of Newt, has consumed every Republican that has stepped into it. If he accepts the position, it would formalize a standing he has held for years. He is already the president of Republican America.

Again, that may overstate Ryan’s status, but if it’s not true now it very well could be pretty soon. If Republicans do consolidate power in 2016, Speaker Ryan will be the one cashing out everybody’s ideological IOUs. And if they again lose, who else can the GOP turn to?

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.