Poised to become the next House speaker, Republican Rep. Paul D. Ryan finds himself in a position he once seemed eager to avoid: leading an unforgiving GOP majority that is not completely sure it wants him.
Late Thursday, Ryan in a letter to colleagues made it official: “I am ready and eager to be our speaker.”
Risks loom large for the boyish Wisconsin congressman, who until recently had enjoyed a lengthy run as a popular GOP figure, but who nevertheless failed to secure all the conditions he demanded as trade-offs for taking the leadership job.
Instead, Ryan now appears willing to settle for less than full-throated support from the conservative base as he tries to steer the GOP away from dysfunction and redefine the speaker’s office -- a potential career-killer for someone with presidential aspirations -- on his terms.
“Whatever our differences, we’re all conservatives,” Ryan wrote to his colleagues, offering a tough-love outlook on the “long road ahead.” The House, he said, like Washington itself, “is falling short.”
“We are not solving the country’s problems; we are only adding to them,” he wrote. “But now, we have an opportunity to turn the page, to start with a clean slate, and to rebuild what has been lost.”
The road ahead will not be easy. But if Ryan can emerge intact from the next few weeks of budget and debt battles, he could potentially transform the job into one he wants -- allowing him to spend more time at home with his children and utilizing his skill set as the party’s visionary spokesman during a presidential election year.
“What Ryan has created is this window of opportunity that may allow him to be a little bit flexible,” said Matthew Green, a professor of politics at Catholic University. “First and foremost, he’s got to find a way to avoid crises or resolve them. Then he’s got to find a way to reunify his party. It’s possible. But so much of what happens in Congress is based on the unexpected.”
Ryan has always done well as the party’s deep thinker, the architect of the steep austerity cuts to Medicare and other safety net programs in the GOP budget.
Ryan, the party’s former vice presidential nominee, was mentored during his early years in Washington by former Housing Secretary Jack Kemp, one of the masterminds of Reaganomics. Ryan modeled his rise on Ronald Reagan’s sunny optimism in pursuit of small government principles.
At 45, Ryan would be the youngest speaker since 1869, in the aftermath of the Civil War, when 39-year-old Rep. James G. Blaine (R-Maine) took the gavel. (Another 45-year-old, Republican Rep. Warren Keifer of Ohio, was a couple of months older than Ryan when he became speaker in 1881.)
Historically, speakers have been an older and grayer sort, veterans of the halls of power. But Ryan is expected to try to shift away from the era of backroom deal-making and toward more big-picture thinking.
The most recent model for the visionary speaker was Newt Gingrich, who wowed voters in the GOP until his top-down style resulted in an internal coup that did him in.
Ryan’s backers, though, are counting on the nine-term congressman’s ability to maneuver through the next few weeks of crises so he can focus on articulating a conservative message for the 2016 campaign.
“His ability to speak to people who aren’t necessarily conservative will be vital going into the election,” Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.) said.
Ryan wanted to become speaker only if he could have some assurances that the conservative forces that pushed Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to early retirement would give him a chance to lead.
On Wednesday, two-thirds of the members of the House Freedom Caucus agreed to back Ryan, but that fell short of the full endorsement he sought, making him vulnerable to the same risks of internal insurrection that doomed Boehner.
Some conservatives are concerned by Ryan’s reluctance to fight for the speaker’s job, questioning whether he might prefer they withhold their support.
“The impression I got speaking to Paul Ryan is that he would be somewhat thankful if he did not have to be speaker of the House,” said Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), a member of the Freedom Caucus.
Ryan also is giving up the natural power base that Boehner -- and his predecessor, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California -- amassed by becoming fundraising juggernauts. Ryan has said he does not want to spend time on the road courting donors when he could be home with his wife and three children in Janesville.
Some conservative colleagues welcomed this balance between professional and family responsibilities, but others have already begun using it against him.
Democrats, meanwhile, easily spotted an opening for criticism, alleging that Ryan’s conservative record has failed to support the kind of policy that benefits working families.
“I’m glad to see @PRyan understands the importance of work/life balance for his next job,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on Twitter. “Millions of hardworking moms & dads want work/life balance too @PRyan but can be fired just for asking for time off to care for a sick kid.”
Said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.): “I hope he will not take weekends off until we do something to solve the debt crisis and to fund the government.”
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