Paul Ryan isn’t conservative enough to be Speaker

After Kevin McCarthy announced that he was taking himself out of the running to succeed John Boehner as Speaker of the House, all eyes turned to Paul Ryan. Ryan, we were told, was the only person who could unite the Republican Party — the only “serious” member of the House who was also conservative enough to bring the unserious-by-implication House Freedom Caucus along with him.

But for all of Ryan’s conservative bona fides, some of his colleagues are declaring him to be as unacceptable as Kevin McCarthy was and as Boehner was before him. According to the New York Times, “[Ryan] is being criticized on issues ranging from a 2008 vote to bail out large banks to his longstanding interest in immigration reform to his work on a bipartisan budget measure. On Sunday night, the Drudge Report — a prime driver of conservative commentary — dedicated separate headlines to bashing Mr. Ryan on policy positions.”

The idea that Paul Ryan, whose name is synonymous with repealing and replacing Medicare, is somehow not conservative enough to be Speaker of the House has been dubbed “insane” by conservative commentators…

…who have no understanding of just how conservative the House Republican caucus has become.

silver-datalab-boehner-3

Chart via FiveThirtyEight

In the 113th Congress, Paul Ryan carried a DW-Nominate score of .586. Historically, and relative to his Democratic counterparts, this would make Ryan a strongly partisan ideologue (there were only eleven Democrats in the House with a more liberal voting record than Ryan’s record was conservative during the 113th Congress). But Ryan isn’t being measured relative to history, nor his he being measured relative to Democrats; he’s being measured relative to House Republicans. And by that measure, Ryan’s conservatism puts him close to (although not quite in) the middle of the pack. There were 82 House Republicans with a more conservative voting record than Ryan during the last Congress and 154 who were less-so. Ryan’s score of .586 made him only slightly more conservative than John Boehner’s .530.

This is particularly relevant in the race for Speaker, as it (for now) requires not only a majority of the House, but a near-consensus among House Republicans who, as I wrote last month, have carved out an entirely new ideological spectrum for themselves. There is as much ideological space separating Republican Peter King (DW-Nominate: .283) from Republican Justin Amash (DW-Nominate: .898) as there has historically been between mainline Democrats and Republicans, and anyone who wants to be the next Speaker is first charged with the task of forming not a majority, but a consensus that covers all of the ground between them.

Paul Ryan, via Mel Brown / Shutterstock.com

Paul Ryan, via Mel Brown / Shutterstock.com

That’s more or less unprecedented in the modern era, and it leaves us with a situation in which Paul Ryan can both be more conservative than John Boehner and Kevin McCarthy and still not conservative enough to secure 218 Republican votes for Speaker of the House.

This is one of a few reasons why Paul Ryan didn’t jump at the chance to become Speaker: The same political fundamentals that drove John Boehner to find religion are just as present now as they were a few weeks ago, and they will apply in equal measure. There is no way for Paul Ryan — or anyone else, for that matter — to do the job “well” if he’s caught in the middle of a tug of war match between the conservative Republican establishment and the nearly-off-the-charts conservative Republican fringe.

In the short term, this means continued chaos in the House. In the long term, it strengthens the case that the eventual Speaker will need to form a coalition that includes Democrats.

Which, at least for the most basic requirements of the legislative body, wouldn’t be too far removed from its current situation.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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