US House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Mirage Candidate, Wages a Parallel Campaign


April 11, 2016

WASHINGTON — As the Republican candidates for the White House battled in Wisconsin last week, Speaker Paul D. Ryan was conspicuously absent from his home state — but he was very much on the political stage.

April 11, 2016

WASHINGTON — As the Republican candidates for the White House battled in Wisconsin last week, Speaker Paul D. Ryan was conspicuously absent from his home state — but he was very much on the political stage.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan addressed the AIPAC conference in Washington, D.C., in March. Mr. Ryan gives regular speeches on politics and policy.

He visited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, where he also met with local reporters and made several statements affirming the United States’ commitment there, before heading to other Middle Eastern nations and Germany to discuss security and intelligence issues.

Back in Washington, his staff churned out its latest flattering video of Mr. Ryan, deploring identity politics and promoting a battle of ideas — set to campaign-style music. And his office continued to beat back the not-exactly-library-voice whisper campaign favoring a coup at the Republican convention in July that would elevate Mr. Ryan to the top of the ticket.

Mr. Ryan is indeed at the center of a national campaign — one he calls “Confident America” — but it is not necessarily for president.

While Mr. Ryan has repeatedly said that he has no intention of becoming his party’s nominee this year, he is already deep into his own parallel national operation to counter Donald J. Trump and help House and Senate candidates navigate the political headwinds that Mr. Trump would generate as the party’s standard-bearer — or, for that matter, Senator Ted Cruz, who is only slightly more popular.

Mr. Ryan is creating a personality and policy alternative to run alongside the presidential effort — one that provides a foundation to rebuild if Republicans splinter and lose in the fall. “He is running a parallel policy campaign,” said Senator Tim Scott, Republican of South Carolina.

He is shaping an agenda that he plans to roll out right before the convention, a supplement of sorts to the official party platform. He gives regular speeches on politics and policy — particularly on poverty and economic issues — then backs them up in the news media.

It is not a move without risks. His policy positions on immigration and trade, which have contributed to his mirage candidacy, are in great tension with the views of many Republican primary voters.

“I’m a big fan of Paul,” said Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama and one of the very few Trump supporters in Congress. “He’s a good person and he’s smart, but issues like trade and immigration are going to be important, and I don’t think anybody gets the Republican nomination that’s not in sync with a substantial majority of the American people on those two key issues.”

Still, his name is a major draw. Mr. Ryan raises substantial sums of money for Republicans, even while keeping his promise to spend Sunday at his children’s sporting events in Janesville, Wis., instead of golfing with donors. The National Republican Congressional Committee raised $185,000 from two emails from Mr. Ryan last month, more than the group’s entire haul in March 2014, during the last House races. He became speaker late last year.

“There is no question that Ryan is operating in a very ambitious way,” said Peter Wehner, a former director of the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives under President George W. Bush who has known Mr. Ryan for two decades. “He is trying to set forth a path for the party with ideas and policy proposals and principles,” he said. “That is unusual for a speaker in an election year, but Ryan himself is a very different person, and this is the product of this very unusual presidential year.”

Mr. Ryan’s parallel track is intended largely to counter Mr. Trump, who stands apart from him and many of the party’s policy traditions. While Mr. Ryan is a vocal advocate of trade deals and wrote legislation that gave President Obama expanded authority to negotiate them, Mr. Trump is equally vocal in opposing free trade.

Mr. Ryan is the architect of his party’s plan to rein in spending on entitlement programs, while Mr. Trump has vowed to leave such spending untouched. Mr. Ryan has also been a leader in his party in supporting an overhaul of the immigration system; opposing this is at the center of Mr. Trump’s campaign.

While Mr. Cruz shares more of Mr. Ryan’s views, especially on issues like defunding Planned Parenthood, he turned against Mr. Ryan’s trade legislation — which he once supported — and has embraced Mr. Trump’s hard-line views on immigration.

Yet even if Mr. Cruz prevails, Mr. Ryan may still offer a supplemental set of talking points for the rest of his party to follow.

For example, if the Republican nominee does not provide an alternative to the Affordable Care Act — something Republicans have failed to do since it passed in 2010 — Mr. Ryan intends to do so, just as he will lay out an anti-poverty plan. Mr. Ryan will even take the highly unusual step of presenting a national security agenda that may not be in step with the nominee’s.

These moves could prove useful to rank-and-file Republicans seeking a life raft in Trumpian seas. “I do think we would be ready to move ahead with our principles,” said Representative Adam Kinzinger, Republican of Illinois. “I am definitely not selling out on mine, and many of my colleagues are in the same boat.”

At this point, Mr. Ryan’s early efforts have done little more than to elevate the speculation about a presidential candidacy that he keeps publicly tamping down. His moves certainly have not unified the party.

“The House and the Senate and the candidate have to come together on policy ideas,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, who was a White House contender and an early Trump antagonist, and is now a reluctant Cruz supporter. “If you can’t get everyone on board, it makes it harder.”

And while Mr. Ryan’s positions remain popular with many Republicans in Washington, they are out of step with the white-hot populism that has fueled this year’s campaign. He remains a proponent of changes to the immigration system even though some Republican voters have been attracted to Mr. Trump’s plan to ban Muslims from entering the country and force Mexico pay for a wall at the border.

Even within the House, Mr. Ryan’s ideas have met with resistance. He cannot get a budget passed, largely because he will not support the deep spending cuts favored by conservatives like Mr. Cruz.

Mr. Ryan has long said that he will support the party’s nominee, even as he has taken frequent shots at Mr. Trump’s comments. But many Republicans expect that if Mr. Trump prevails, Mr. Ryan will avoid directly helping him, choosing instead to shore up vulnerable House Republicans, particularly those who may be running away from Mr. Trump.

“I don’t think he would use his position as the stick in the eye of Trump or taunt him,” Mr. Wehner said.“But I don’t think Ryan would be at all shy about laying out the agenda of the Republican Party, because, remember, there are a lot of people voting against Trump out there.”

One of Mr. Ryan’s central demands when he was drafted to be speaker was that he could spend weekends at home with his family, and not on the road raising money, as John A. Boehner, the previous speaker, did.

Because of this, Mr. Ryan has become well versed in the toe-touch method of travel, which he has used to become a prodigious money raiser. During a recent Monday-to-Friday stretch, the speaker was in five states and nine cities, stumping for House Republicans. On that Wednesday, he hit Alabama for five hours before zipping to another state. He has also been careful to raise money for some of the more conservative members, like Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, the leader of the Freedom Caucus, which helped oust Mr. Boehner.

His office is adept at using social media to further Mr. Ryan’s agenda — and deepen speculation about his ambitions. During a winter snowstorm, the speaker’s Snowcam drove record traffic to his website, especially new visitors. Then there was his “I am definitely not running” campaign-style video, another big draw, as well as the SpeakerSelfie and in-video captions designed to accommodate the autoplay features on Twitter and Facebook that keep people watching.

Courtesy: NY Times