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Ryan's presidential denials won't dim establishment hopes

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(Bloomberg) — House Speaker Paul Ryan keeps trying to reject the notion that, somehow, in this crazy election year, he could emerge from a contested convention as the Republican Party’s presidential nominee.

Ryan on Tuesday insisted — yet again — that he won’t run for president this year, delivering a statement at the Republican National Committee office in Washington Tuesday.

“I do not want, nor will I accept, the nomination for our party,” he said. “Count me out.”

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But no matter how many times the Wisconsin Republican says that he won’t be the nominee, the rumors have persisted, fueled by the traditional business wing of the party, which has become increasingly isolated this year.

Often the target of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz’s populist bombast, establishment Republicans are desperate for a reasonable — and safe — conservative. They’ve been pinning their hopes and dreams on the wonkish Ryan, if not for 2016 then for 2020.

“He is smart, thoughtful and willing to find common ground to get things done,” said Bill Oberndorf, who co-founded the investment firm SPO Partners & Co.

“In short, he is everything Republican voters have decided to reject in 2016. At the end of the day, they will have stood on their conservative swords to nominate a candidate that will elect Hillary Clinton president. How short-sighted. How pathetic,” Oberndorf said.

‘Only name’

Whether or not Ryan manages this time to tamp down the 2016 speculation, the business wing of the party is still eyeing him for the 2020 contest.

“I hear his name over and over and frankly it’s the only name I hear at this point,” said Bill Greiner, chairman of the board of Primary Bank and a former hedge fund manager. “Paul has a lot of experience, both in budgets and finance.”

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Greiner said that, at a breakfast with a couple of fiscal insiders late last month, the topic of discussion was their hopes that Ryan might emerge as the nominee at the convention in Cleveland.

“I think he’s the best hope,” said Greiner. He noted that Ryan’s actions in stepping up to replace former Speaker John Boehner were “well played out,” and Greiner hasn’t seen any regret from Republicans.

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The Ryan attraction goes beyond temperament, his relative youth and his reputation as a policy wonk who, at age 46, has already has been vetted nationally in a run for vice president in 2012.

Ryan’s brand of conservative policy positioning on such issues as slashing taxes, replacing Medicare benefits with vouchers, immigration, and deregulation of Wall Street, often wins plaudits from conservatives for being bold changes — while rarely offending old-line establishment Republicans.

Haley Barbour, a former governor of Mississippi who was chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1993 to 1997, said that in Ryan, Republicans have a leader who “doesn’t just talk, he proposes serious programs and policies that will work.”

“And he’s very good at articulating that,” Barbour added.

During four years as House Budget Committee chairman, Ryan proposed repealing Obamacare, cutting business tax rates, ending the estate tax and consolidating programs for low-income households. He sought to overhaul Medicare, the health program for seniors, by giving future recipients a fixed amount of money to buy insurance. Democrats say his plans would shred the social safety net.

He also has supported allowing 11 million undocumented immigrants to eventually become U.S. citizens, a stance strongly opposed by many fellow Republicans.

Earle Mack is a real estate developer and former U.S. ambassador to Finland who started a short-lived “draft Ryan” campaign last month, but shut it down after the speaker’s office vehemently objected. He said Ryan is someone who will create jobs, “and do it the right way without disrupting the economy,” because his approach is to not choke off business while showing “compassion to the working class” and poor people.

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“He can do it, I think, with things like lowering corporate taxes, and lowering the individual tax rate, and raising incentives to bring jobs back,” said Mack, who was prepared to give $1 million of his own money to his committee to draft Ryan even though he’s never met the speaker personally.

Policy gaps

Ryan has managed to win this kind of support even though many of his proposals have been issued in general terms, without having filled in all the specific policy details. Those gaps don’t bother his supporters.

Conservative Republican Michael Boyle, CEO of Boyle Energy Services & Technology in New Hampshire, said he sees Ryan as having the bearing, gravitas, intelligence and ability to communicate his ideas — a Republican incarnation of the legendary Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill.

“Paul strikes me as that type of politician,” he said.

Ryan’s office has consistently rejected the notion that he has a pattern of insisting he doesn’t want a job he actually wants, a reference to his initial reluctance to be considered for the speaker’s office last fall. Ryan emerged as the only plausible candidate for speaker in the messy wake of Boehner’s resignation.

Ryan aides insist that the Wisconsin congressman’s recent speeches on Republican unity and policy were about the ideas he wants to inject into the fall campaigns, not a preamble to a presidential agenda.

Strong denials

Several business Republicans agree that the knock-it-off message from Team Ryan has been clear for a while.

“I take them at their word,” said Republican strategist David Catalfamo, who also was involved in the draft-Ryan super-PAC.

Ryan admirers still hope he will make a White House bid at some point.

“I would be honored to support him to the utmost of my ability,” said Mack, of a 2020 bid by a man who, he admitted, “would not know me if he fell on me.”

‘Sweet spot’

Congressional experts, including Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, say that if the Republican Party does crash and burn in 2016, Ryan could be someone who emerges from the ashes and rebuilds a more pragmatic party.

“He hits a sweet spot for a lot of conservatives and Republicans: conservative enough to satisfy the base, not so conservative that he scares the crap out of others,” says Ornstein.

But his job at speaker could get in the way. He already is finding it difficult — if not impossible — to win passage by his own Republican House majority of a fiscal 2017 budget resolution. And so far, he hasn’t yet faced the sort of substantial challenges as speaker that wore down and eventually knocked out his predecessor, John Boehner of Ohio.

Unless he can find a way around those problems, they could end up redefining Ryan as a target of the anti-establishment populist right, egged on by talk radio, blogs and social media.

“I don’t know of anybody who harbors any ill will toward him,” said Curly Haugland, a Republican National Committee member from North Dakota. “But as speaker, he’ll have a lot of opportunity to earn it.”

National ambitions

This is all without even mentioning that Ryan he has never won election to statewide, let alone national, office. Since Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, neither major party has nominated anyone other than a sitting or former U.S. senator, governor or vice-president.

And, history also shows, no sitting U.S. House speaker has ever successfully run for president.

Many establishment Republicans “see Ryan as a very smart fellow, a public servant who knows policy, a conservative but an inclusive one like Jack Kemp who at least tries to put up a bigger tent to welcome more people,” said New York-based national pollster John Zogby.

“Someone like Ryan could be a good presidential candidate,” said Zogby. “But not by this party and not this time. It could be that Ryan’s best opportunity comes at the worst time.”

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