Did Paul Ryan Just Ruin His Chances for 2016?

The conservative budget negotiator embraces compromise, and shows why Washington legislators will have such a hard time as presidential candidates.

BOSTON, MA - NOVEMBER 07: Republican vice presidential candidate, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and family wave to the crowd after Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney conceded the presidency during Mitt Romney's campaign election night event at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center on November 7, 2012 in Boston, Massachusetts. After voters went to the polls in the heavily contested presidential race, networks projected incumbent U.S. President Barack Obama has won re-election against Republican candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
National Journal
Beth Reinhard
Dec. 12, 2013, midnight

Un­like some con­ser­vat­ive voices, the po­ten­tial Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial con­tenders had the cour­tesy to wait un­til after the budget deal was un­veiled to de­clare their op­pos­i­tion. But they didn’t wait long.

Swiftly came the de­nounce­ments from Sens. Ted Cruz, Marco Ru­bio, and Rand Paul. Con­ser­vat­ive groups piled on the agree­ment ne­go­ti­ated for their side by Paul Ry­an, call­ing it “a huge Re­pub­lic­an cave-in” and “sur­render.”

Ry­an — also a pos­sible pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate — now finds him­self in the awk­ward po­s­i­tion of try­ing to sell an agree­ment blessed by Pres­id­ent Obama to a con­ser­vat­ive base that re­flex­ively op­poses any­thing with a whiff of bi­par­tis­an­ship. It’s a spot Ru­bio knows all too well: He dog­gedly pitched an im­mig­ra­tion-re­form bill earli­er this year only to get hammered by tea-party act­iv­ists and watch his poll num­bers flop.

It isn’t easy to run for pres­id­ent from Wash­ing­ton — es­pe­cially if you want to ac­tu­ally gov­ern.

“When it comes to the pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion in 2016, tea-party act­iv­ists are go­ing to look at who has been true to our core prin­ciples, and this budget deal is not,” said Jenny Beth Mar­tin, cofounder of the Tea Party Pat­ri­ots. “It’s something Paul Ry­an is go­ing to have to ex­plain.”

Cam­paign­ing for pres­id­ent has changed dra­mat­ic­ally over the last few dec­ades, but one thing re­mains the same: It isn’t easy to run for pres­id­ent from Wash­ing­ton — es­pe­cially if you want to ac­tu­ally gov­ern. Just ask Bob Dole, who resigned at the peak of his power in the Sen­ate in 1996 to fo­cus on his pres­id­en­tial cam­paign.

As a former vice pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee, Ry­an is a nat­ur­al fa­vor­ite to be the 2016 stand­ard-bear­er of a party that fre­quently nom­in­ates the next in line. But as ap­prov­al of all things Wash­ing­ton sinks to re­cord lows, spec­u­la­tion has surged that the next Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee will come from out­side the Belt­way. Not­ably, that opin­ion was re­cently ex­pressed by none oth­er than Gov. Scott Walk­er, who is weigh­ing his own na­tion­al am­bi­tions. (Walk­er did say Ry­an, his fel­low Wis­con­sin Re­pub­lic­an, was an ex­cep­tion to the rule.)

Ry­an has re­peatedly re­ferred to him­self this week as a “con­ser­vat­ive” in an ob­vi­ous at­tempt to re­mind every­one of his long­time polit­ic­al stripes, but not every­one on the right is con­vinced.

“What Ry­an is com­ing up against is that the role of a le­gis­lat­or is usu­ally in con­flict with pres­id­en­tial polit­ics,” said Re­pub­lic­an lob­by­ist Vin Weber, a former con­gress­man who has ad­vised pres­id­en­tial cam­paigns. “He’s prov­ing to be one of the best le­gis­lat­ive lead­ers the Re­pub­lic­an Party has, but that’s not ne­ces­sar­ily con­sist­ent with be­ing a pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate, and the ques­tion is, ‘Which does he prefer?’ ” 

Ry­an is not ex­pec­ted to take as much of a beat­ing as Ru­bio did over im­mig­ra­tion for a couple reas­ons. It’s a short-term budget deal on a tight dead­line; the deal was an­nounced Tues­day even­ing and could go to a vote as quickly as Thursday. In con­trast, Ru­bio spent months ham­mer­ing out a com­plex over­haul of the im­mig­ra­tion sys­tem.

What’s more, some Re­pub­lic­ans are bank­ing on con­ser­vat­ives tak­ing it easy on Ry­an and his ef­forts to keep the gov­ern­ment open after Jan. 15 be­cause of the in­tense back­lash after the Oc­to­ber shut­down.

“Ry­an has done a huge fa­vor for the party,” said Peter Wehner, who has served in three Re­pub­lic­an ad­min­is­tra­tions and worked with Ry­an at the Em­power Amer­ica think tank. “I’m not sure there’s any bi­par­tis­an le­gis­la­tion that could pass Con­gress that the con­ser­vat­ive move­ment would sup­port. That a con­ser­vat­ive like Ry­an would be cri­ti­cized by oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans for a very de­fens­ible budget deal is re­veal­ing.”

“What Ry­an is com­ing up against is that the role of a le­gis­lat­or is usu­ally in con­flict with pres­id­en­tial polit­ics.”

Con­ser­vat­ives ob­ject that the budget deal trades some of the man­dat­ory spend­ing cuts un­der the so-called se­quester for fu­ture spend­ing re­duc­tions. Wehner said Ru­bio’s op­pos­i­tion was “par­tic­u­larly in­sult­ing” be­cause he op­posed the se­quester in the first place. “I think there are people who are run­ning for pres­id­ent that op­pose this deal simply be­cause they think it fur­thers their am­bi­tions,” Wehner said.

The un­pop­u­lar gov­ern­ment shut­down offered gov­ernors con­sid­er­ing pres­id­en­tial bids, in­clud­ing Chris Christie of New Jer­sey, Bobby Jin­dal of Louisi­ana, and Rick Perry of Texas, an op­por­tun­ity to dis­tance them­selves from Wash­ing­ton and present them­selves as prob­lem-solv­ers.

“In Wash­ing­ton, it’s all about duk­ing it out for the most con­ser­vat­ive groups of voters, and they don’t re­flect the full spec­trum of our po­ten­tial polit­ic­al can­did­ates,” said Re­pub­lic­an lob­by­ist Charlie Black, who has ad­vised pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates from John Mc­Cain to Mitt Rom­ney. Mc­Cain, he noted, took the lead on im­mig­ra­tion and cam­paign fin­ance le­gis­la­tion and still won the nom­in­a­tion. “It’s tough to get out there in Wash­ing­ton and try to get something done, but it’s not fatal,” he said.

Ry­an seemed taken aback by the dis­ap­prov­al from con­ser­vat­ive groups that have hailed him in the past for pro­pos­ing sweep­ing changes to the fed­er­al budget to slash Medi­care spend­ing and tax rates.

“It’s a strange new nor­mal, isn’t it,” Ry­an said with a laugh, after he presen­ted the pack­age to his House GOP col­leagues. “I don’t let that stuff both­er me any­more. Groups are go­ing to do what they want to do. What mat­ters to me is: Am I do­ing what I think is right? Am I stick­ing to my prin­ciples?”

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