Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s Shermanesque declaration on Tuesday that he will not be seeking the Republican nomination for president at the Republican National Convention this summer was a wise one.
Ryan appears to understand, far better than those who have been urging him to run, that to succeed in wresting away the nomination from Donald Trump or Ted Cruz at the convention in Cleveland (a far-fetched scenario to be sure) would be a Pyrrhic victory.
Ryan knows he would enter the presidential campaign with little chance of winning. Even if he were to succeed in winning the GOP nomination on the second, third, or fourth ballot at the convention in Cleveland (a far-fetched scenario to be sure), he would enter the race with no money and no serious campaign infrastructure and would be helming a party in which around 70 percent of its voters would view him as a usurper. And if he did prevail, there’s a good chance that one of the candidates he vanquished — Donald Trump — would make it his near-term goal to do everything in his power to prevent Ryan from winning the White House.
But for Ryan, even trying to win the nomination — or worse, actually succeeding — would likely spell the death knell of his long-term political aspirations. He would alienate those approximately 70 to 80 percent of primary and caucus voters who chose Ted Cruz or Trump to be the Republican nominee. He would prove every terrible thing that Republican rank-and-file voters think about the party establishment, and he would make it nearly impossible to legitimately seek the party’s presidential nod for himself sometime down the road.
Ryan is as close as the Republican Party has to a unifying figure: loved by some, tolerated by others. He is perhaps the only person in the party who could unite its warring camps. The last thing he should want to do during this cycle is cause Republican voters to view him as a divisive figure. Seeking the Republican nomination would do just that.
There’s some historical precedent here worth considering. In 1964, Richard Nixon (who narrowly lost the 1960 presidential election to John F. Kennedy) flirted with the possibility of challenging conservative darling Barry Goldwater for the party’s nomination that year. However, when it became clear that Nixon couldn’t win – and that to continue down that path would alienate the party’s conservative wing — he did an about-face. He gave the speech introducing Goldwater at the Republican National Convention and then spent the fall campaigning tirelessly for him, even though he knew Goldwater couldn’t win and certainly didn’t want him to. In contrast, the moderate New York governor, Nelson Rockefeller, spoke out against Goldwater’s extremist views and further cemented the already negative relationship that existed between him and the conservative wing. Four years later, when both Nixon and Rockefeller sought the GOP nomination, the decisions these two men made in San Francisco would loom large.
Ryan seems to understand that this year, the path of conciliation is a far better one than confrontation. The Republican nominee is going to be either Trump or Cruz; and the next president will most likely be Hillary Clinton. For Republicans, their focus should be as much on what comes after November than what happens before. Give Ryan credit for understanding the political dynamics within the Republican Party.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.