Could Paul Ryan Be the Koch Brothers’ Dream Candidate?

(Photo: AP/Ron Sachs)

Speaker Paul Ryan delivers a speech to House interns on Capitol Hill on March 23.

Paul Ryan, speaker of the House of Representatives, would like you to know two things: He is very, very sorry for those mean things he said about poor people, and he is not seeking the Republican nomination for the presidency. On that second point, though, were there to be a need for a candidate who hadn’t run in any of the 2016 primaries or caucuses, well …

“People say, ‘What about the contested convention?’ I say, well, there are a lot of people running for president,” Ryan told CNBC’s John Harwood on March 15. “We'll see. Who knows?"

His spokespeople were quickly dispatched to Twitter to assert that their boss would never accept such a nomination, words that the speaker himself has yet to utter. The most Ryan will say is “I will not be the nominee,” a statement that sounds more like a prediction than a rejection. And predictions are known to be often wrong.

Makers and Takers

A week after the Harwood interview, Ryan took advantage of an address to a group of Capitol Hill interns to make one of his characteristic “tsk-tsk” statements about the unkindness of Donald Trump without calling the frontrunner by name, and to say that he regretted having, at points in his career, described poor people who accepted public assistance as “takers.”

“But as I spent more time listening, and really learning the root causes of poverty, I realized I was wrong,” Ryan told the aspiring politicos. “‘Takers’ wasn’t how to refer to a single mom stuck in a poverty trap, just trying to take care of her family. Most people don't want to be dependent. And to label a whole group of Americans that way was wrong. I shouldn’t castigate a large group of Americans to make a point.”

What Ryan failed to note is that he famously used that Ayn Rand–style “makers” and “takers” framing in the 2012 presidential race, and often in a context that seemed to lump all recipients of Social Security and Medicare into the “taker” category.

Now he wants America to know that he is a kinder, gentler, more understanding kind of a leader, one who seeks comity in our politics. In short, he is the anti-Trump, and much of his speech to the interns could easily be retread into an acceptance valedictory at a nominating convention in which a very nasty guy with a whole lot of delegates behind him—just not quite enough to win on the first ballot—finds himself knocked out of the running. If the Republican National Convention goes to a second ballot, most delegates will no longer be bound to the candidate they came in with, and will be free to cast a vote for whomever they choose. And Ryan has said he would respect the choice of the delegates.

Fueled by buzz from such leading Republicans as former House Speaker John Boehner about a potential Ryan candidacy, those of us who spend our days reading tea leaves attempting to prognosticate this year’s crazy electoral contests have been eyeing Ryan as the party’s possible draft pick. (Earlier this month, Peter Dreier made the case for a Ryan candidacy in the Prospect.)

The Cruz Gambit

This speculation may seem confounding as Ted Cruz, the U.S. senator from Texas, racks up reluctant endorsements for his presidential quest from such notable establishment types as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. But it’s important to bear in mind that Cruz is even less likely than Trump to win the nomination on the first ballot at the convention. These Republican elites, as they’ve come to be known, are more in the business of stopping Trump than electing Cruz. They most likely want to help Cruz win just enough delegates to deprive Trump of the 1,237 he’d need to waltz into Cleveland as the Party of Lincoln’s de facto nominee.

And chances are that the main aim of the meddling pooh-bahs is not to avoid losing the presidential election (though they’d prefer to forgo that fate, of course); it’s to avoid losing control of the Republican Party to Trump and his pugilistic minions. Whoever wins the nomination will have his hands on the levers of the Republicans’ sputtering machine. And Trump makes his own rules, and chooses his own friends.

Since the rise of the Tea Party and the success achieved by the Koch brothers in shaping the GOP in their image, tensions between party regulars and the entities created by the billionaire siblings have sometimes been fraught. Most recently, party leaders have been in a tussle with the Koch network over a voter-data operation, i360, controlled by the Kochs that operates outside the party structure but is used by many Republican candidates who find it superior to the party’s data platform. The bad news for the party is that the data collected on those candidates’ behalf is not shared with the Republican National Committee; it stays within the Koch-linked operation. (Kenneth P. Vogel and Mike Allen have goods on the GOP data wars here.)

Whatever tensions exist, the Koch brothers and the party have a common interest in stopping Trump. However grand the scale of the Koch network of think tanks, field operations, and data mines, it is an extra-party infrastructure built around the Republican Party. Should the Republican Party fracture in unpredictable ways, or simply become something far different in shape than it has been, the Koch network could end up lacking a vehicle through which to achieve its aims. Though the Kochs and their well-heeled allies may despair from time to time of the party’s failure to deliver every jot and tittle of their agenda, they need the party, and the party, as it has adapted to the machinery the magnates built around it, needs the Koch network.

Ryan’s Koch Connections

It all adds up to a scenario that could sweep Ryan onto the standard-bearer’s horse. Almost from the inception of Americans for Prosperity (AFP), the largest entity in the Koch field operation, the organization has championed Ryan’s career. In 2008, he received the Wisconsin AFP chapter’s “Defender of the American Dream” award from the hands of a young county executive named Scott Walker, whose political career was all but launched by AFP. Ryan has addressed the group’s gatherings, and regularly receives its accolades. He’s turns up at other Koch-network events. He adheres to the Koch ideology of voucherizing Medicare and privatizing Social Security, which he once described as a “collectivist” scheme. He’s pretty much a climate-change denier, a prerequisite for Koch support.

Those who nay-say the possibility of a Republican presidential nominee who has not run in the state-level nominating contests will tell you that such a candidate is unlikely to emerge for lack of a field operation or voter data. But a Koch-backed candidate needn’t fret; as Politico’s Vogel and Allen reported in 2014:

… Mainstream Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell, are trying to reclaim control of the conservative movement from outside groups. The Kochs, however, are continuing to amass all of the campaign tools the Republican National Committee and other party arms use to elect a president.

With the Wisconsin primary a week away, Donald Trump made a campaign stop* on Tuesday in Paul Ryan’s hometown of Janesville. At about that same time, Ted Cruz picked up a big endorsement—from Paul Ryan’s old buddy, Governor Scott Walker.

*Campaign violence update: The New York Daily News reports that at the Trump rally in Janesville, a teenage girl with a protest sign was pepper-sprayed by a Trump supporter after she slugged a guy whom she said touched her inappropriately.

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