Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images
Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Representative Paul Ryan certainly is the most prominent House Republican other than Speaker John Boehner, and he certainly appears to be ambitious. So why did he dismiss the speculation that he might seek the majority leader job soon to be vacated by Eric Cantor?

That’s what some people were discussing on Twitter yesterday. Matt Glassman had a good theory: “My guess is that he's angling for the Presidency/Executive branch, and doesn't want to get tied to the House caucus.” Makes sense. If Ryan wants to seek the presidency, either in 2016 or later, a House leadership position is no launching pad. A majority leader either has to support any deal the party makes, or engage in high-profile spats with the speaker. It’s easier for a Ways and Means Committee chairman (Ryan’s presumed job in the 114th Congress) to cast votes that line up with the way issues are likely to play in a presidential nomination battle.

But that’s not the only plausible explanation. What if Ryan actually cares about developing policy? Party leadership is about cutting deals and managing the Republican conference, not about the nitty-gritty of public policy. I’ve never taken Ryan very seriously as a policy wonk, but maybe he sees himself as one. There’s no better position for a policy wonk -- manque or real -- than chairman of Ways and Means.

Or maybe Ryan really does want to be House speaker, but sees Ways and Means as a safer path. It’s true that most speakers in the modern House have moved up the ladder, but not all. And these are, as Cantor's experience demonstrates, treacherous times to be in the leadership. Basically, as long as Republicans don’t have unified party government (and perhaps even then), they are going to disappoint plenty of their voters, who are going to blame congressional leaders.

It doesn't matter so much if these strategies are correct, but whether Ryan thinks they’re correct. Still, I think they probably are on target: Whatever Ryan wants, it’s easier to get there from the chairmanship of Ways and Means than from the perch of majority leader.

One more point: Even if Ryan goes to Ways and Means regardless of his real ambitions, his actions there should be very different depending on those long-term goals. If he’s running for president, he should use the committee to develop a platform that appeals to party actors inside and outside of Washington who are important to the nomination process. If he’s running for speaker, he should focus on passing bills that make his fellow House Republicans happy. And if he’s really in it to do policy, he’ll try to develop ideas into laws, even if it means compromising with the Senate and the president.

To contact the writer of this article: Jonathan Bernstein at Jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.