WASHINGTON -- An attempt by conservative author Bill Kristol to excite interest in the idea of a presidential run by Republican congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) –- with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) as his running mate -– fell flat with the conservative political establishment on Monday.
“Sounds like an idea my good friend Bill Kristol would float, but that is not the nominating process of the Republican Party,” said Mel Sembler, a major Republican fundraiser and businessman. “Paul Ryan has already stated he is not interested in running and Marco Rubio just got to town as senator.”
“I guess Bill Kristol will just have to stick to prognosticating,” Sembler told The Huffington Post.
Part of the derision toward Kristol derives from his central role in thrusting former Gov. Sarah Palin (R-Alaska) onto the national stage before Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) chose her as his running mate in the 2008 presidential campaign.
Yet a broad cross section of GOP political figures –- many of them in off-the-record conversations -- echoed Sembler's opinion, even as they sang Ryan’s praises. Some even admitted that Ryan is one of the few Republican politicians who they think could beat Obama in a debate, pointing to his exchange with Obama at last year’s health care summit.
In withholding their support, they cited Ryan’s unwillingness to jump into the 2012 presidential race, his lack of executive experience, and a strong belief that the Republican primary should proceed methodically and traditionally, without the kind of disruption that a surprise candidate would bring.
“If people want to run, let them run and subject themselves to the rigor and scrutiny of the process,” said Jim Rickards, an economic analyst who works with top GOP politicos in Washington. “This business of anointing unvetted fantasy tickets seems a bit sophomoric.”
Nonetheless, Kristol’s second try at floating a Ryan-Rubio trial balloon –- after first doing so in early January -– is just another indication of how unsettled many conservatives are with the quality, or lack thereof, on the party’s 2012 roster of potential presidential candidates.
“I suspect the enthusiasm Bill Kristol notes has a lot to do with a kind of dissatisfaction with the emerging field, as much as a sense that Ryan and Rubio in particular would be the right ticket,” Yuval Levin, a former Bush White House policy adviser, said via email.
Levin agreed with those who don’t believe Ryan will run, but said that “whoever is the Republican candidate will have to adopt the Ryan agenda, and in the long run it's a plausible winning agenda.”
An experienced Republican political operative in Washington laid out the reasons why neither Ryan or Rubio would run in 2012, starting with the fact that both have young families and don’t want to essentially abandon their families to devote themselves to a campaign and the possibility of an all-consuming job if they won.
On policy, the operative said, “they’d get killed on the stump for the tough stuff they are supporting,” referring to Ryan’s plans to cut roughly $1 trillion from Medicaid in his budget proposal this week, and to dramatically overhaul Medicare.
“Just because the Wall Street Journal loves their policies doesn’t make it a political winner,” the Republican said. “It's a conservative’s fantasy that allows people to sit and sigh saying, ‘None of the above, I picked Ryan-Rubio.'”
The responses of conservative leaders to questions from The Huffington Post about the hypothetical ticket became predictably similar.
“Rubio and Ryan are young enough to run for president anytime in the next 20 years, so I assume they both wait,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum, said Kristol’s suggestion of a Ryan-Rubio ticket was “interesting, but suffers from the problem that neither has expressed any interest in running.”
Multiple Democratic sources close to the Obama administration were also dismissive of the idea.
SUPPORT FROM OPINION MAKERS AND THE TEA PARTY
Despite the pessimism among the political establishment, there are small signs that Kristol’s desire for a compelling alternative to the current field -– and to the other much-discussed dark horse candidate, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey –- is catching on, at least among conservative writers.
On Sunday, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote that, if the GOP primary comes down to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, “the Republican Party will have let both its own constituents and the country down.”
Douthat referenced the way that Ryan and other GOP leaders –- including Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina –- are framing the 2012 election as a matter of existential importance for both conservatism and limited government. Inherent in the conservative concern is the fear that an American culture built on self-reliance, unlimited opportunity and exceptionalism is being replaced by a national identity marked by growing dependence on government and increasingly small ambitions for achievement.
“Every presidential election matters, but Daniels and Ryan are right to see the 2012 campaign as a potential hinge moment in American domestic politics,” Douthat wrote. “The unpopularity of President Obama’s agenda, the obvious unsustainability of blue-state spending habits (evident in budget battles from California to New York) and the looming entitlement crisis have created a remarkable opportunity for conservatives to reimagine government’s role -- to look ‘beyond the welfare state,’ as Yuval Levin argues in the latest issue of National Affairs, and try to discern what come next.”
Yet the GOP looks like it is on the verge of squandering the moment, Douthat wrote. It’s a fear shared by others. The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin is another conservative pundit who of late has begun to promote the idea of a Ryan-Rubio ticket.
“It might just be that the Ryan-Rubio duo proves to be the boldest, most influential twosome in Washington. In the absence of a serious president, maybe these two can restore America’s economic health and international credibility. And if so, the Republican electorate might want to think about drafting them for bigger jobs in 2012,” Rubin wrote last week.
Grassroots Tea Party organizers also expressed interest in the idea of a Ryan candidacy.
“There may be other exciting combinations out there, but tons of us in the grassroots would work ourselves to the bone to get that ticket elected,” said Bob MacGuffie, a Tea Party activist in Connecticut.
COULD THE BUDGET BE RYAN'S BIG BREAK?
All of this comes as Ryan, who is chairman of the House Budget Committee, is taking center stage in Washington, as he releases an alternative budget proposal for the 2012 fiscal year, which begins in October. His budget would cut $6.2 trillion in spending over the next decade and reduce the federal budget deficit by $4.4 trillion over that same period, Ryan wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that went live online late Monday.
Ryan cited a Heritage Foundation study in arguing that his budget would create one million new private sector jobs next year and bring the unemployment rate from its current rate of 8.8 percent down to 4 percent in 2015, enlarging the average family's income by roughly $1,000 each year.
Ryan’s name and face –- already a more constant presence on TV airwaves and in the national debate this year –- will be thrust even further into the daily news cycle, increasing his name recognition. And since he is proposing fundamental changes to programs that are considered sacrosanct by the left, Ryan is set to become one of the Democratic Party’s primary political targets for the coming year.
Democrats had already begun launching salvos at Ryan on Monday ahead of the release of his budget.
But such a debate, and such an intensity of attacks, is also likely to rally much of the GOP behind Ryan.
“Paul Ryan and his colleagues are attempting structural reforms that exceed anything even Ronald Reagan attempted,” said conservative writer Pete Wehner. “It is a political and intellectual undertaking of historic importance. And for conservatives, it’s a cause worth rallying behind."
If Ryan emerges from the coming debate having both won over the public and united the GOP behind him, then the conversation about his political future may have to change.