Having sat behind President Barack Obama during the State of Union Address in January, House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters afterward that he had done his best to maintain a poker face and avoid wincing, despite his objections to much of what Obama said, out of respect for the office. But Ryan's real expression was closer to a smirk, and it hinted at another possibility. Ryan might have been telling himself, "That could be me up there a year from now."
It's not as far-fetched as it sounds. In fact, amid a presidential primary that has broken all the rules and left the GOP at loggerheads, a Ryan nomination is not only possible -- it might even be probable. Ryan has already emerged triumphant from the fray of another party fracas, when his House colleagues "drafted" him to be speaker after John Boehner resigned last fall. Similarly, if Donald Trump doesn't arrive at the GOP convention in July with half the delegates, Ryan could be "drafted" by the Republican convention to run for president -- perceived by his colleagues as the only person who can beat the Democratic nominee and save the party from self-destruction.
Although Ryan has consistently said he's not interested in running for president this year, his recent behavior suggests otherwise. In the past few weeks he's been much more visible in the media than he's been since he assumed the Speakership in October and has been positioning himself as the leader of his party.
Two weeks ago, for example, he criticized Trump for saying that riots would erupt if he (Trump) doesn't become the party's presidential nominee. He also criticized Trump for not forcefully distancing himself from David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader. He added that Trump's call to ban Muslims from entering the United States was wrong. Ryan did not try to hide his strong opposition to a Trump candidacy:
"If anybody -- not just Donald Trump -- if anybody is out there representing the Republican Party in ways that we believe disfigure conservatism or do not portray what our views and principles are, I, as a party leader -- and others, I assume, as well -- have an obligation to defend our principles from being distorted. We're going to continue doing that."
He also predicted that the GOP might face a brokered convention, which is another way of suggesting that Trump won't have the necessary delegates to win the nomination on the first ballot.
This Wednesday, in a speech to Congressional interns, Ryan clearly rebuked Trump (without mentioning him by name) when he said that politics should be "a battle of ideas, not a battle of insults." Seeking to appear statesmanlike, he admonished politicians in both parties for debasing political discourse and called for more civility. He also apologized for labeling poor people who receive government benefits as "takers," a way of increasing his appeal to moderate voters who were upset with Ryan's comments. (Despite the apology, Ryan hasn't changed his draconian policy proposals to slash anti-poverty programs).
HAD Trump won the Republican primary in Ohio, he would likely have had a clear shot at garnering the 1,237 (out of 2,470) delegates needed to clinch the nomination on the first ballot. But Ohio Governor John Kasich's victory in his home state complicates Trump's path.
That sets the stage for a brokered convention, where leaders from the various factions within the GOP, along with their key financial backers, will try to agree on a "stop Trump" candidate who can not only gain a majority of delegates to win the nomination, but also beat the Democratic nominee in November.
If Trump falls short of winning a majority of delegates on the first ballot, the delegates pledged to him would no longer be legally bound to support him on subsequent ballots. It is unlikely that Texas Senator Ted Cruz can gather enough delegates to grab the nomination away from Trump. That's because Cruz would have to win over not only his own delegates, but also delegates who bolt from Trump, as well as almost all the delegates initially pledged to Kasich and the other candidates who have withdrawn from the race--Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Ben Carson, Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, and Carly Fiorina.
At that point, with the convention in a dire deadlock, the GOP leaders (including Republican governors and key members of the party's Rules Committee), major donors (including representatives of the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson, and others), and perhaps Fox News mogul Roger Ailes, can be expected to come together to look for an outsider to save the party from disaster. Ryan, presumably, will be eagerly waiting in the wings, ready to serve. Ryan, who was Mitt Romney's running mate in 2012, has said he doesn't want the job--but that's the same thing he once said about the speakership.
Susan Del Percio, a New York-based Republican strategist who was a senior advisor to now-defunct political action committee that had backed a Ryan-for-president bid, says that Ryan is the perfect candidate to unite the party and win in November.
"He was the consensus to be speaker among House Republicans, who usually can't get a consensus about anything," she observes.
Del Percio explains that it would be impossible to get anti-Trump Republicans to coalesce around Ryan at the convention unless his backers had mobilized support ahead of time.
"You can't get people behind a candidate in 24 hours at the convention," she observes. "You have to lay the groundwork."
The Republican operative believes there's a strong possibility of a "contested" convention.
"I don't use the word 'brokered,' because I'm not sure who the brokers would be," says Del Percio.
The so-called GOP establishment first failed to rally enough support for its favored candidate, ex-Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Party insiders then turned to Marco Rubio, but the Florida senator's lackluster campaign never gathered enough momentum to seriously challenge Trump.
As Bush and Rubio faltered, and as Trump's campaign gained momentum, a growing number of GOP insiders began talking about drafting Ryan, say party sources. To be sure, Ryan has consistently claimed that he's not interested in the top slot. When Fox News's Megyn Kelly asked Ryan in February if he'd be willing to be drafted at a brokered convention, he said no.
BUT in early March, Earle Mack, a businessman and former U.S. ambassador to Finland under President George W. Bush, started a Committee to Draft Speaker Ryan, which he registered with the Federal Election Commission as a super PAC, a type of independent political action committee that can raise unlimited sums of money. Mack, who says he has never met Ryan, pledged to spend up to $1 million to build support for the effort, and recruited several well-known GOP operatives--including Del Percio--to the cause. On March 7, the PAC launched a Facebook page and set out to get one million people to pledge their support for a Ryan candidacy. But Ryan asked the group to shut down, so within a week Mack's effort was officially dismantled.
Last week CNBC asked Ryan if he'd accept the GOP nomination if the convention became deadlocked. This time, his answer was more equivocal. "We'll see, who knows," he responded, adding nevertheless: "I'm not running for president. I made that decision, consciously, not to." His self-contradictory comments set off a flurry of speculation and forced Ryan to quickly retreat from his ambiguous statement. By the next morning (Wednesday), Ryan's spokesperson was telling reporters, "The speaker is grateful for the support, but he is not interested. He will not accept a nomination and believes our nominee should be someone who ran this year."
But then Boehner, Ryan's predecessor as speaker, reignited the draft-Ryan momentum when he said he would support Ryan for president in the event of a contested convention. He made those comments while attending a conference in Florida, according to Politico. "If we don't have a nominee who can win on the first ballot, I'm for none of the above," Boehner said. "They all had a chance to win. None of them won. So I'm for none of the above. I'm for Paul Ryan to be our nominee."
Whatever Ryan is saying in public, the GOP's Dump Trump movement is determined not to take no for an answer. Ryan's advocates are surely already talking to the party's business-oriented establishment delegates, the Tea Party activists, the religious right crusaders, the libertarian militants, and the other factions within the party, trying to persuade them that Ryan embraces their views and is the only Republican who can win in November.
UNTIL World War II, before candidates were chosen by state primaries and caucuses, party conventions were often chaotic affairs that involved lots of horse-trading by political bosses from each state. It wasn't unusual for conventions to require multiple rounds of votes before someone got the party's nomination. In 1924, the Democrats needed 102 ballots--the most on record--before they nominated John W. Davis as their standard-bearer.
The last time the Democrats had a brokered convention was in 1952, when it took them three ballots to nominate then-Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson. The Republicans' last brokered convention occurred in 1948. New York Governor Thomas Dewey won the nomination, but it took three ballots to seal his victory. Both Stevenson and Dewey had campaigned for months to win their parties' nominations.
Since then, party conventions have been highly-scripted pep rallies. There's little drama when the outcome is known in advance. Instead, the conventions are designed to gain media visibility and momentum for the candidate whose nomination is a done deal.
The situation this year could be very different, since Ryan hasn't declared his candidacy, hasn't campaigned for the job, and will go to the convention without a single delegate aligned with him. As speaker, Ryan will serve as the chairman of the convention, giving him an even larger public role in the proceedings.
When the GOP convention convenes in Cleveland, the bartering will escalate. On the convention floor, and in the hotel rooms, bars, and restaurants where they retreat to discuss these matters, the delegates for other candidates could easily begin shifting loyalties toward Ryan. By the second or third day of the convention at Quicken Loans Arena, the whispers could well become a groundswell and the "Ryan for President" signs might start appearing. It's easy to picture a massive rally on the convention floor with delegates shouting "We want Paul!"
Ryan would then signal to RNC chair Reince Priebus that he's willing to be drafted.
Except for Trump, the other candidates would be expected to put on their own poker faces and release their delegates so they could rally behind Ryan. A one-time Cruz, Trump, or Rubio delegate would make a motion from the floor that Ryan be the Republican nominee for president. Late on the third day of the convention--during the prime-time television period--the delegates would cast their votes for Ryan to be the GOP standard-bearer. Ryan would then arrive on stage to a combination of grateful applause and angry boos (from Trump's supporters) and deliver a half-hour speech humbly accepting the nomination and pledging not only to unite the Republican Party, but to soundly defeat the Democrats and work with a Republican-controlled House and Senate to enact an agenda to shrink the government.
This waiting-in-the-wings strategy is nothing new for the Wisconsin Congressman. It is, in fact, exactly how he got to be speaker of the House. Ryan was hardly a passive spectator in his ascent to the speakership. Some observers detected Ryan's fingerprints on the entire process--from Boehner's surprising resignation, to heir-apparent Kevin McCarthy's withdrawal from contention after his blunder over Benghazi, to the elimination of other would-be speakers. Ryan then emerged as the "savior"--the only person of stature who could unify his fractious party. In their desperation, the Republicans turned their lonely eyes to Ryan, who played hard to get. One media outlet reported that Ryan "has made it perfectly clear he has no interest in becoming speaker of the House of Representatives," while another reported "House GOP Crying For Paul Ryan To Run For Speaker." Ryan insisted at the time that he was happy to be House Ways and Means chairman and wasn't interested in the speaker's seat.
Even once he was drafted, Ryan pretended to be uninterested in the position; but he eventually agreed to accept it if the GOP honchos would agree to his conditions. One of them was that he be allowed to regularly fly back to Wisconsin to spend time with his wife and three young children. "I cannot and will not give up my family time," he said at the time. (This is ironic, since Ryan has consistently opposed a federal paid family leave program to allow ordinary families to balance work and family.) Ryan was elected speaker on October 29.
Ryan is perfectly positioned to emerge, once again, as his party's last-minute savior. He's handsome, articulate and youthful (46), but has served in the House since 2000. He's more politically experienced and appealing than Cruz, even though the two share similarly right-wing views. Although his voting record and policy ideas are ultra-conservative, Ryan is not seen as a flame-thrower. As House speaker, he's been able to propose policy ideas that keep him consistently in the news but without the taint of ambition for higher office. He's sought to create a reputation as a pragmatic conservative and an intra-party bridge builder. He has already brokered a budget package with Obama that gained the support of more than 60 percent of Republican House members, which he can point to as evidence that he can work "across the aisle" and thus appeal to independent voters.
In recent weeks, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have assumed that one of them will face off against Trump in November. Whatever opposition research they've done on Trump will be worthless if Ryan wins the GOP nomination.
On the other hand, the Democrats have plenty of information about Ryan -- his personal background, his political history, and his strengths and weaknesses as a campaigner -- from his less-than-impressive tour as Mitt Romney's running mate four years ago. (For example, Ryan's presence on the ticket couldn't stop Obama from winning Wisconsin). Despite his lackluster performance, Ryan made lots of contacts with GOP leaders and voters across the country who would help him win the nomination, raise money, and build a campaign operation.
ONLY in the wacky world of today's Republican Party could Ryan be seen as a voice of reason or even, according to the party's Tea Party wing, as "too far left," as the New York Times reported in October.
As part of his campaign to appear to be an honest broker within the party, Ryan carefully cultivated the image of being a serious "thinker" and "policy wonk" and, for the most part, the mainstream media have taken the bait. When Mitt Romney introduced Ryan as his running mate in 2012, he described the Wisconsin Congressman as the "intellectual leader of the Republican Party." In the conservative magazine Commentary, James Pethokoukis wrote that, "It's probably safe to assume that no elected official in America understands the ins and outs of the labyrinthine U.S. budget the way Paul Ryan does." A McClatchey news story described Ryan as a "policy wonk" and a "conservative thinker." The Daily Beast called Ryan a "number-crunching policy wonk." New York Times columnist Ross Douthat described Ryan as a "moderate conservative."
But from any rational perspective on the spectrum of American political views, the words "moderate" or "moderate conservative" don't fit with Ryan in any context except perhaps his clothing preferences and his haircut.
Ryan has credited Ayn Rand, the libertarian philosopher of you're-on-your-own selfishness as "the reason I got involved in public service." Rand's books have been required reading for his congressional staffers. Like Rand, Ryan consistently demonizes people who improve their lives with the help of government. Ryan seems to be unaware of how much his own family and his own financial success have been influenced by "big government."
Despite Ryan's persistent attacks on government spending, his family's construction business has been anchored in building roads on government contracts. Despite his worship of private-sector entrepreneurs, he's spent his entire career as a government employee. Despite being a crusader against anti-poverty programs, Ryan is a millionaire who made his money an old-fashioned way: by marrying a woman who inherited a fortune.
In his speech to the GOP convention in Tampa in 2012, where he accepted Romney's invitation to join the GOP ticket as its vice presidential candidate, Ryan told a story about how, after his father's death, his mother "got on a bus every weekday for years, and rode 40 miles each morning to Madison." Ryan said:
She earned a new degree and learned new skills to start her small business. It wasn't just a new livelihood. It was a new life. And it transformed my mom from a widow in grief to a small businesswoman whose happiness wasn't just in the past. Her work gave her hope. It made our family proud. And to this day, my mom is my role model.
Ryan cast this as a celebration of his mother's lift-herself-by-her-own-bootstraps spirit. What he conveniently overlooked was that the bus was a public service, that the road was built and maintained by government, and that the University of Wisconsin in Madison is a public institution.
Ryan, moreover, has released budget plans that would slash funding for public education, roads, and public services that are the investments we need to lift people out of poverty and strengthen our economy.
During the 2012 campaign, when he was Romney's running mate, reporters kept asking Ryan to explain his draconian budget, but he never offered a coherent answer. His stump speech was little more than stock cliches about the evils of "big government," the importance of being "self sufficient" and the dangers of people becoming dependent on government instead of fending for themselves.
RYAN, in fact, has built his reputation demonizing poor people. His most well-worn metaphor has been that anti-poverty programs have failed because instead of being a safety net, they have become a "hammock," robbing people of their self-esteem and initiative. Not surprisingly, Ryan has set out to slash programs that help low-income families and children. In 2013, from his perch on the House Budget Committee, he came out in favor of $20 billion in cuts that will throw an estimated two million children, elderly, and disabled Americans off food stamps. He pushed an amendment to eliminate food stamps for people who have $2,000 in savings, or a car worth more than $5,000. The CBO found that this would throw 1.8 million people off of the program. As The Hill reported:
Most of these would be low-income seniors and working families with children. These families typically live paycheck to paycheck. Denying them the ability to save for emergencies, such as fixing a car, or unexpected expenses, such as buying a uniform for a new job, only makes them more dependent on government resources, not less.
The mainstream media routinely give Ryan credit for being a serious budget guru and social policy expert. This came out in 2014 when he released a 205-page report on the history of anti-poverty programs, going back a half century to President Johnson's Great Society programs, which concluded that they had failed. The report examined eight types of federal anti-poverty programs: food aid, social services, housing, cash aid, education and job training, energy, health care, and veterans' affairs.
In the report, Ryan claimed that federal programs have contributed to the nation's high poverty rate and created a "poverty trap." According to the report, "Federal programs are not only failing to address the problem. They are also in some significant respects making it worse." The misleading report was meant to justify Ryan's proposed budget, which would slash anti-poverty programs such as food stamps, family assistance, college aid, child-care subsidies, and housing vouchers. Ryan, who also opposed extending unemployment insurance to the long-term jobless and raising the minimum wage, maintained that social science findings support his view that these programs have failed.
Ryan's report generated a lot of media attention.
The headline in Time magazine read: "Paul Ryan Critiques War on Poverty In New Report: Claims federal healthcare, nutrition and education programs have failed to address U.S. poverty rate." The Los Angeles Times headlined its story: "Paul Ryan calls for cuts to anti-poverty programs."
The Washington Post headline echoed the same point: "Ryan Report Questions Efficacy Of Anti-Poverty Programs." The National Journal headlined its article, "Ryan Says Some Poverty Programs are Hurting the Poor."
The headlines were both accurate and misleading at the same time. Ryan did say that anti-poverty programs hurt the poor. But neither the headlines nor these (and most other) news stories in the mainstream media managed to convey the key about Ryan's report: It was factually wrong.
Few reporters bothered to contact any social science experts who might have explained that Ryan's report didn't stand up to scrutiny. For all its authoritative-looking footnotes, the report misquoted and misinterpreted several studies that examine the impact of a wide variety of anti-poverty programs.
For example: Ryan's report cited a study published in December by Columbia University's Population Research Center that measured poverty trends since the War on Poverty began in the 1960s. Columbia Professor Jane Waldfogel and her colleagues looked at an alternative measure of the poverty rate known as the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), which factors in government benefits like food stamps and programs like the earned-income tax credit. They found that the poverty rate fell from 26 percent in 1967 to 15 percent in 2012. But Ryan only cited data from 1969 onward, ignoring a full 36 percent of the decline.
"It's technically correct, but it's an odd way to cite the research," Waldfogel told Fiscal Times. "In my experience, usually you use all of the available data. There's no justification given. It's unfortunate because it really understates the progress we've made in reducing poverty."
One organization did call Ryan's findings into question. The well-respected Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which has been evaluating anti-poverty programs for years, released a report titled "Ryan Report Distorts Safety Net's Picture," which concluded that Ryan's report was "replete with misleading and selective presentations of data and research, which it uses to portray the safety net in a negative light. It also omits key research and data that point in more positive directions."
Those reporters who did closely examine Ryan's report turned up multiple errors. These included Jonathan Chait, whose New York magazine story was headlined, "Paul Ryan Tries to Enlist Social Science to Back Up His Poverty Plan, Disaster Ensues," and Jordan Weissman, whose Slate report was headlined: "It's a Trap!" with the subhed: "Paul Ryan's theory of poverty is tricksy--and wrong." In a New York Times column called "The Poverty Trap," Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman stated flatly that social science research "doesn't actually support the claims" in Ryan's report.
Ryan's flimsy research doesn't support his "policy wonk" reputation. On scrutiny, he looks like just another a right-wing politician with strong convictions.
Throughout his congressional career--on taxes, business regulation, abortion, gun control, gay rights, campaign finance, financial reform, anti-poverty programs, immigration, workers' rights, energy and the environment, deficit spending, privatizing Social Security, public transportation, unemployment insurance, health care, property rights, and other issues--Ryan has hardly been "moderate" or even a "moderate conservative."
Instead, his ultra-conservative positions put him in lockstep with the Tea Party, the National Rifle Association, and the business establishment's right wing, represented by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which casts virtually any government regulation to protect consumers, workers, and the environment as a "job killer." He rejects the notion that global warming is a serious problem. He has consistently supported tax breaks for the very wealthy. Ryan has condemned Social Security as "a collectivist system."
Indeed, based on his voting record in Congress, Ryan is ranked as conservative as former Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, the founder of the Tea Party Caucus. Examining his voting record, the National Journal described Ryan as "the most conservative House Speaker in recent history."
All this suggests that Ryan is so far out of sync with the vast majority of Americans that in theory, he should have a hard time beating either Clinton or Sanders in November. But if the media don't closely scrutinize Ryan's views and voting record -- as they failed to do when he ran for vice president and when he was selected speaker -- then all bets are off.
Trump, of course, would fight any "draft Ryan" movement tooth and nail. He's already warned that if the GOP leaders snatch the party's nomination from him, "I think you'd have riots." If Ryan gets the nod, Trump would likely take his ego and his billions and run as a third party candidate. Many of his followers will go with him -- potentially shattering the Republican Party.
That opens up two possible scenarios.
Trump could be a spoiler, taking enough Electoral College votes from Ryan to hand the White House to the Democratic nominee. Whether Trump has any interest in actually forming a permanent third party is anybody's guess, and he has openly pledged not to do this. But if Trump broke his promise, the history books would look at Trump as the GOP's Ralph Nader, whose 2000 campaign took enough votes from Al Gore to allow the Supreme Court to anoint George W. Bush as president.
The other scenario is that Trump could win enough votes in enough states to deny either Ryan or the Democratic nominee the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency. In that case, the House of Representatives would elect the President, with each state delegation getting one vote. In that situation, the Republican-controlled House could well put Ryan in the White House. (The Constitution also calls for the Senate to elect the Vice President from the two VP candidates with the most electoral votes, with each senator casting one vote. Since the Republicans currently control the Senate, they will also get to choose the VP, even if the Democrats take back the Senate in November, because the new Senate won't take their seats until January).
Only two presidential elections have been decided in the House of Representatives. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr each received the same number of electoral votes. On February 17, 1801, the House elected Jefferson to be president on the 36th ballot. In 1824, Andrew Jackson won a plurality of both the popular and electoral votes, but not enough to defeat rivals John Quincy Adams, William H. Crawford, and Henry Clay. The House then picked Adams as president. Four others presidential election, including those of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and John F. Kennedy in 1960, came within 30,000 votes of requiring a decision by the House.
This could be the craziest presidential election since 1948, which featured four candidates: President Harry Truman (who inherited the job after Franklin Roosevelt died), New York Governor Thomas Dewey, former Democratic Vice President Henry Wallace, running on the left-wing Progressive Party ticket, and South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond, a former Democrat running on the segregationist Dixiecrat Party. Truman narrowly beat Dewey, but by such a narrow margin that the next day the Chicago Tribune's famously false front page headline read "Dewey beats Truman."
Reporters and headline writers, as well as the American people, could be in for another wild ride this year up through November. Hold your breath, because anything could happen.
Peter Dreier teaches politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His latest book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books). An earlier version of this article appeared in The American Prospect.