This Is Why Paul Ryan Didn’t Run for President

Instead of roaming the campaign trail, the Ways and Means Chairman is exactly where he wants to be — in the middle of simultaneous policy fights on trade and health care.

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 05: House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) questions Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf during a hearing in the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill February 5, 2014 in Washington, DC. Committee members questioned Elmendorf about the latest projections by the CBO, which says the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, will affect supply and demand for labor, leading to a net reduction of about 2.5 million full-time jobs by 2024. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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Dylan Scott and Lauren Fox
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Dylan Scott and Lauren Fox
June 18, 2015, 10:59 a.m.

Paul Ry­an is seem­ingly in the middle of every le­gis­lat­ive mess at the mo­ment — and that’s right where he wants to be.

He’s just fin­ished help­ing to wrangle enough con­ser­vat­ive and Demo­crat­ic votes to pass a Trade Pro­mo­tion Au­thor­ity bill out of the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives, a key le­gis­lat­ive win for him­self and Pres­id­ent Obama. Now Ry­an is shoul­der­ing his party’s next big bur­den as he leads the ef­fort to con­struct the Re­pub­lic­an con­tin­gency plan if a core piece of the Af­ford­able Care Act is gut­ted by the Su­preme Court in the com­ing weeks.

Polit­ic­al pro­gnost­ic­at­ors spent years won­der­ing if Ry­an would turn his 2012 vice pres­id­en­tial bid in­to his own cam­paign for the White House. But the Wis­con­sin Re­pub­lic­an has made him­self more polit­ic­ally rel­ev­ant by stay­ing just where he is.

He could have done any­thing after run­ning with Mitt Rom­ney three years ago. He had a high name ID, na­tion­al fun­drais­ing net­work, and con­nec­tions in both con­ser­vat­ive and es­tab­lish­ment circles. But those who know him aren’t sur­prised he in­stead ended up with the Ways and Means gavel, dic­tat­ing the new GOP Con­gress’s path for­ward on the biggest is­sues of the day.

“I told him this at the time. If he wanted to run for pres­id­ent, then I thought the best thing for him to do would be to leave Con­gress, go write a book, go make some money, go build a net­work, and avoid the day-to-day grind,” Rep. Tom Cole, a deputy Re­pub­lic­an whip, said in an in­ter­view. “Well, he ob­vi­ously didn’t take that ad­vice. I think this is what he wants to do.”

“In this field, he would have been at the top of the field. He had name ID and a na­tion­al fun­drais­ing net­work. He had everything,” Cole said. “And yet, ‘Well, I think we have the chance to get some really big things done on policy. We can get trade. We can get tax re­form.’ He puts that first.”

Ry­an didn’t just de­cide to skip a 2016 pres­id­en­tial run; he has also ruled out serving in the House elec­ted lead­er­ship. He ex­plained why in an in­ter­view with Na­tion­al Journ­al last fall.

“I’ve nev­er wanted to be speak­er,” Ry­an said. “I know my­self very well, and I know where I’m happy. … I like spend­ing my time on poli­cy­mak­ing.”

Among his col­leagues on Cap­it­ol Hill, Ry­an has stock­piled an in­valu­able cur­rency. He’s got re­spect. Some­how he has man­aged not only to be the ar­chi­tect of policies and thought pa­pers, but he has con­vinced Re­pub­lic­ans in all corners of the party to get on board even when that meant work­ing with an un­trus­ted pres­id­ent. When Ry­an in­tro­duces a new le­gis­lat­ive plan, he also has a plan to mar­ket it. From budget to trade, many in the con­fer­ence say Ry­an spends count­less hours on out­reach. Sev­er­al mem­bers of the Free­dom Caucus said when they were try­ing to make up their minds on trade, there were few who hadn’t heard per­son­ally from Paul.

“Polit­ics is about two things. It is about broad ideas and mass mes­saging, but it is also about re­tail polit­ics, door-to-door, hand­shake to hand­shake, and he is do­ing this big-time on TPA,” said Rep. Mark San­ford, a Re­pub­lic­an from South Car­o­lina who ul­ti­mately de­cided to sup­port TPA.

For many pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates on Cap­it­ol Hill, en­tangling them­selves in the sub­stant­ive is­sues of the day is messy. For Sen. Marco Ru­bio, his work on im­mig­ra­tion re­form has of­ten been seen as a hindrance as he moves ahead in the GOP primary. For Sen. Rand Paul, who had built his repu­ta­tion as a civil-liber­ties stal­wart, there was more safety in rail­ing against a re­form bill than at­tach­ing his name to it. In polit­ics, be­ing on re­cord can be det­ri­ment­al to your pres­id­en­tial as­pir­a­tions.

But now that Ry­an is not run­ning for high­er of­fice, he is free to pur­sue con­tro­ver­sial policies. He’s able to wheel and deal and find middle ground be­cause he is not be­hold­en to any­thing but his own de­sire for pro­ductiv­ity.

“Here, he and the pres­id­ent were on the op­pos­ite sides of one an­oth­er in a na­tion­al cam­paign, and the pres­id­ent’s had no great­er friend and ad­voc­ate for TPA to en­hance his au­thor­ity than Paul Ry­an,” Cole said. “It shows you Paul’s North Star really is policy.”¦ If you can come to a com­mon agree­ment, he is more than happy to work with people who have been ad­versar­ies in the past and will be in the fu­ture.”

When Ry­an was ne­go­ti­at­ing the trade deal, Rep. Pat Tiberi, the chair­man of the Ways and Means Sub­com­mit­tee on Trade, said he of­ten would watch Ry­an work per­son­ally with mem­bers to get them to “yes.” He re­called one spe­cif­ic in­stance when Ry­an won over con­ser­vat­ive Steve King’s sup­port by al­low­ing him an im­mig­ra­tion amend­ment on the cur­rency bill.

But bey­ond that, Tiberi says Ry­an’s man­aged time after time to prove “his word is gold.”

“He is not dis­missive of people’s opin­ions even if he thinks their opin­ions are crazy and full of mis­in­form­a­tion,” Tiberi said. “If you ac­tu­ally want to vote for an is­sue, wheth­er it is TPA today, the doc fix, tax re­form in the fu­ture — if you want to get to ‘yes,’ Paul is the guy.”

Yet even as the trade drama draws to an end, there will be no rest for Ry­an. Any day now, the na­tion’s high court could rule that the Af­ford­able Care Act’s tax sub­sidies are il­leg­al in more than 30 states, put­ting in­sur­ance for more than 6 mil­lion people at risk.

Ry­an was the one who out­lined a not-yet-fi­nal­ized plan and took ques­tions at a closed-door meet­ing with GOP law­makers Wed­nes­day. It will be yet an­oth­er test of his lead­er­ship among House Re­pub­lic­ans. He must unite the con­fer­ence be­hind a fix that pre­vents cata­strophe for mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans while also sat­is­fy­ing the con­ser­vat­ive de­sire for ven­geance if the GOP’s most-hated law is vul­ner­able.

It’s been on his agenda since March when he, En­ergy and Com­merce Chair­man Fred Up­ton, and Edu­ca­tion and the Work­force Chair­man John Kline re­leased their ini­tial draft. In the in­ter­im, he has had to save the trade le­gis­la­tion from pro­ced­ur­al mis­steps and also helped to end a des­pised con­gres­sion­al tra­di­tion, the Medi­care “doc fix.”

It sounds like al­most too much for any one le­gis­lat­or to handle, but Ry­an’s al­lies say he char­ac­ter­ist­ic­ally isn’t sweat­ing it.

“He al­ways keeps it cool, al­ways keeps his sense of hu­mor, and keeps his eye on the big pic­ture on all these is­sues,” said Rep. Kev­in Brady, who chairs the Ways and Means health sub­com­mit­tee. “Be­cause he has cred­ib­il­ity across our con­fer­ence spec­trum, people have con­fid­ence he’s listen­ing, he cares, and he’s try­ing to find the right po­s­i­tion, and that trust really gives him in­flu­ence bey­ond just the chair­man­ship.”

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