Did Paul Ryan Just Ruin His Chances for 2016?

National Journal

Unlike some conservative voices, the potential Republican presidential contenders had the courtesy to wait until after the budget deal was unveiled to declare their opposition. But they didn't wait long.

Swiftly came the denouncements from Sens. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul. Conservative groups piled on the agreement negotiated for their side by Paul Ryan, calling it "a huge Republican cave-in" and "surrender."

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Ryan—also a possible presidential candidate—now finds himself in the awkward position of trying to sell an agreement blessed by President Obama to a conservative base that reflexively opposes anything with a whiff of bipartisanship. It's a spot Rubio knows all too well: He doggedly pitched an immigration-reform bill earlier this year only to get hammered by tea-party activists and watch his poll numbers flop.

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It isn't easy to run for president from Washington—especially if you want to actually govern.

 

"When it comes to the presidential nomination in 2016, tea-party activists are going to look at who has been true to our core principles, and this budget deal is not," said Jenny Beth Martin, cofounder of the Tea Party Patriots. "It's something Paul Ryan is going to have to explain."

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Campaigning for president has changed dramatically over the last few decades, but one thing remains the same: It isn't easy to run for president from Washington—especially if you want to actually govern. Just ask Bob Dole, who resigned at the peak of his power in the Senate in 1996 to focus on his presidential campaign.

As a former vice presidential nominee, Ryan is a natural favorite to be the 2016 standard-bearer of a party that frequently nominates the next in line. But as approval of all things Washington sinks to record lows, speculation has surged that the next Republican nominee will come from outside the Beltway. Notably, that opinion was recently expressed by none other than Gov. Scott Walker, who is weighing his own national ambitions. (Walker did say Ryan, his fellow Wisconsin Republican, was an exception to the rule.)

Ryan has repeatedly referred to himself this week as a "conservative" in an obvious attempt to remind everyone of his longtime political stripes, but not everyone on the right is convinced.

"What Ryan is coming up against is that the role of a legislator is usually in conflict with presidential politics," said Republican lobbyist Vin Weber, a former congressman who has advised presidential campaigns. "He's proving to be one of the best legislative leaders the Republican Party has, but that's not necessarily consistent with being a presidential candidate, and the question is, 'Which does he prefer?' " 

Ryan is not expected to take as much of a beating as Rubio did over immigration for a couple reasons. It's a short-term budget deal on a tight deadline; the deal was announced Tuesday evening and could go to a vote as quickly as Thursday. In contrast, Rubio spent months hammering out a complex overhaul of the immigration system.

What's more, some Republicans are banking on conservatives taking it easy on Ryan and his efforts to keep the government open after Jan. 15 because of the intense backlash after the October shutdown.

"Ryan has done a huge favor for the party," said Peter Wehner, who has served in three Republican administrations and worked with Ryan at the Empower America think tank. "I'm not sure there's any bipartisan legislation that could pass Congress that the conservative movement would support. That a conservative like Ryan would be criticized by other Republicans for a very defensible budget deal is revealing."

"What Ryan is coming up against is that the role of a legislator is usually in conflict with presidential politics."

 

Conservatives object that the budget deal trades some of the mandatory spending cuts under the so-called sequester for future spending reductions. Wehner said Rubio's opposition was "particularly insulting" because he opposed the sequester in the first place. "I think there are people who are running for president that oppose this deal simply because they think it furthers their ambitions," Wehner said.

The unpopular government shutdown offered governors considering presidential bids, including Chris Christie of New Jersey, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and Rick Perry of Texas, an opportunity to distance themselves from Washington and present themselves as problem-solvers.

"In Washington, it's all about duking it out for the most conservative groups of voters, and they don't reflect the full spectrum of our potential political candidates," said Republican lobbyist Charlie Black, who has advised presidential candidates from John McCain to Mitt Romney. McCain, he noted, took the lead on immigration and campaign finance legislation and still won the nomination. "It's tough to get out there in Washington and try to get something done, but it's not fatal," he said.

Ryan seemed taken aback by the disapproval from conservative groups that have hailed him in the past for proposing sweeping changes to the federal budget to slash Medicare spending and tax rates.

"It's a strange new normal, isn't it," Ryan said with a laugh, after he presented the package to his House GOP colleagues. "I don't let that stuff bother me anymore. Groups are going to do what they want to do. What matters to me is: Am I doing what I think is right? Am I sticking to my principles?"

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