The Weekly Standard‘s Stephen Hayes is reporting that Paul Ryan is giving serious thought to running for president. Many conservatives are excited about this news for obvious reasons. Ryan has come up with one of the few serious plans in Washington for confronting the main drivers of the country’s long-term debt. He is relatively young, telegenic, eloquent, and knows the federal budget inside and out. In 2012, Republicans are going to be attacked for Ryan’s Medicare proposal anyway. Why not have a nominee who can actually defend it?
But there would be downsides to a Ryan presidential run. First, the field is already full and he has no obvious path to the nomination. Would he automatically leap to frontrunner status in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina? Fairly or not, a failed Ryan campaign would, like the NY-26 race, be used to discredit entitlement reform and could well make a Republican president less likely to touch the third rail.
Second, Ryan’s credibility as a fiscal conservative will be tarnished. He voted for TARP. He not only voted for but was instrumental in passing Medicare Part D. He uses Medicare Part D as an example of how to bring health care costs down (I don’t actually disagree with him on this point, even though I opposed Medicare Part D, but the finer distinctions will be lost in the political debate). He has been an advocate for spending agreements that have been criticized by Tea Party activists and supported a debt deal the entire GOP field save Jon Huntsman opposed. He is running against Republicans — Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul — who will not hesitate to point all of this out.
All these problems could get worse if he somehow wins the nomination. Obama will point out that Ryan had a hand in all the major unfunded spending of the Bush administration, blurring the distinction between Ryan’s fiscal responsibility and the president’s own budget-busting. He will demagogue Medicare ceaselessly. Worst of all, if Ryan loses we get four more years of Obama — and quite possibly no Paul Ryan as chairman of the House Budget Committee.
The late Paul Weyrich once lamented that conservatives are monarchists at heart. The desire for presidential leadership is understandable. But the work Ryan is doing as chairman of the House Budget Committee is valuable. No matter who is president, someone in Congress needs to be doing what he is doing. Very few people have seemed equal to this task.
If the report is true, I suspect the only reason he is thinking about jumping in is that he doesn’t see anybody in the Mitch Daniels-less field who will play Ronald Reagan to his Jack Kemp. If he gets elected president, he’ll have a bigger platform for reforming entitlements and controlling federal spending.
But if Ryan loses, it will set back the work he has done on the House Budget Committee. In my opinion, it’s not worth the risk.