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A Paul Ryan Campaign? Really?

This item is cross-posted from The New Republic.

The sub-headline in Stephen Hayes' latest Weekly Standard post trumpeting the possible emergence of a Paul Ryan presidential campaign lists some big political names who are encouraging the idea: "Mitch Daniels, Jeb Bush, John Boehner, Jim Jordan, and Bill Bennett encourage Ryan to run for president." Hayes missed a few more big names who might well be equally excited about a Ryan run: Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid.

Indeed, Democrats (especially those in Congress) have been plotting for months to make Paul Ryan's budget proposal, and particularly its radical treatment of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, the centerpiece of their 2012 campaign. After all, the proposal drew the support of nearly every Republican in Congress, despite abundant public opinion research (and at least one special election) showing the potential for a strong public backlash against its specific provisions. A Ryan candidacy, in other words, would rigidly align the GOP with its least popular ideas at the very moment that all Democrats, from the president to the lowliest House candidate, are desperate to make this a "comparative" election instead of a temperature reading on life in the Obama era. So why would prominent Republicans be interested in making Democrats so very happy?

One explanation is that Paul Ryan may be simply too emblematic of contemporary Republican thinking to be resisted by his own party. As TNR's Jonathan Chait (one of the few progressive commentators who have consistently predicted Ryan would run) put it, "He is adored by party activists and elites in equal measure and is the embodiment of the party consensus." Aside from the laurels he has won by putting together a budget proposal that reflects the long-frustrated conservative goal of demolishing the New Deal/Great Society safety net once and for all, Ryan is also beloved of neoconservatives struggling to rebuff resurgent neo-isolationism in the GOP, and he is a faithful ally of social conservatives as well. And what libertarian can't help but feel good about a congressman who reportedly has made Atlas Shrugged required reading for his staff?

Another theory, meanwhile, holds that Ryan represents an itch that simply hasn't been scratched by the current GOP field: the desire for a simon-pure fiscal conservative who doesn't simply thunder against big government or domestic spending, but actually seems to have more than a clue about how, mechanically and strategically, to go about slaying the beast. The people who were very excited and then very disappointed about Mitch Daniels' stillborn presidential candidacy seem to be the same people pushing Ryan to run.

But my hunch is that the main motivation behind the growing Ryan boom in elite circles is that Republicans have more or less decided they cannot lose the presidential race in 2012 unless their candidate has big personal flaws or comes off as legitimately crazy. As a result, they are beginning to assess the field in terms of capacity to serve as president rather than mere electability. And they don't like what they see. Tim Pawlenty would have been fine, but he's gone. Mitt Romney would be fine, as well, but he may struggle to win the nomination, leaving the field (unless someone like Ryan enters) to less-fine candidates like Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry. To be sure, the Texas governor supposedly entered the field as a man acceptable to the GOP Establishment as well as the Tea Party and the Christian Right. But his opening act--an announcement speech that was essentially one long feral roar aimed at Obama, liberals, and tax-evading poor people, followed by an egregious exercise of that hardy populist perennial, Fed-bashing--was surely unsettling to elites trying to imagine this caveman-in-a-necktie in the Oval Office.

This we-can't-lose, so-let's-win-right point of view was most clearly expressed the other day by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat:

Romney and Perry will be competing to face possibly the weakest incumbent since Jimmy Carter, with the world in turmoil and the economy adrift. Six months ago, it still seemed as if Republican primary voters might be choosing a sacrificial lamb to run against Barack Obama. Now it looks as if they might be choosing the next president.

This should inspire Republicans to return, yet again, to the question that has dogged their party's field all year. Is this really the best we can do?

Douthat chose to cast his field-expanding vote for Chris Christie, but more to the point, his comparison of Obama to Carter is a meme that has been steadily spreading like kudzu through the conservative chattering classes for months, and has been given added impetus by the first Gallup tracking poll showing the president's job approval rating dipping below 40 percent.

The bottom line is that growing Republican optimism about 2012 is leading GOP elites to think seriously about candidates like Ryan, whose popularity among grassroots rank-and-file Republicans makes his nomination at least a realistic, if still a long-shot, scenario. But the same calculation could lead to a general election campaign that gives pessimistic Democrats a seriously renewed hope for victory.