Why Paul Ryan Isn’t Running for President

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Everywhere he goes, whether it’s the Racine County Fair or Fox News, Paul Ryan inevitably gets asked the question: will he run for President?

Generally, Ryan replies that he’s flattered but happy where he is. He talks about his young children and how his father and grandfather both died young of heart disease. Ryan, as a teen, was the one who discovered his father’s body. And while the Wisconsin congressman is doing everything in his power to avoid that fate – including leading daily morning exercise classes on Capitol Hill – he can’t be sure. There’s a reason, he says, that he’s not in leadership: He prefers spending weekends with his kids rather than crisscrossing the country fundraising and stumping for candidates, as leaders are expected to do. And, finally, Ryan says he’s “a policy guy who has to be a politician for the policy,” as he told me last year. He’s happy being Budget Committee chairman – and just look at the waves he’s managed to make there – burying himself with wonky spreadsheets and think tank white papers, dreaming of one day becoming chairman of the powerful tax writing Ways & Means Committee. To a deficit hawk like Ryan, that seat is the pinnacle of power, perhaps even more so than the Oval Office. After all, constitutionally, the House is the branch of government responsible for taxing and spending — not the White House.

And, yet there has been a spate of stories of late speculating that Ryan might run. Just look, TNR’s Jonathan Chait says, at Ryan’s response to The Question to Fox News’s Neil Cavuto last week:

On Thursday evening, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan said yet again that he is not considering a run for the GOP presidential nomination. But when asked by Fox News’ Neil Cavuto whether he would change course from past rejections of a presidential bid, Ryan hesitated before saying, “Look, I think I want to see how this field develops.”

“I think there are going to be other people getting into the race,” he continued. “You know I was hoping Mitch Daniels would get into the race. He obviously didn’t do that. But there’s such a long way to go. Obviously I believe Republicans need to retake the White House.”

At this point, Cavuto interrupted and asked whether Ryan was “holding out that possibility if the field doesn’t develop to your liking.”

Other evidence? Ryan gave a foreign policy speech recently – expanding from his usual laser-like focus on deficits – where he liberally praised The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol, who has been the leader of the draft-Ryan-for-president club.

Almost everyone I know in Ryan’s circle laughs this off, repeating to me all the reasons above why Ryan’s not going to run. I can think of at least one more: the Democrats’ demagoguery of Ryan’s plans for Medicare. They would love Ryan to run for President if only so they could keep spreading their message that Ryan, along with all Republicans who don’t disavow his plan, want to kill Medicare as we know it. (In fact, Ryan does want to fundamentally change Medicare, though those over 55 would be grandfathered in.) That’s probably why it’s mostly Democrats who are seriously pushing the notion that Ryan is running.

That said, Ryan has his own electoral problems to worry about. He comes from a moderately Republican-leaning, union-heavy district, which President Obama won in 2008. Democrats are targeting him hard in the next election. He was heckled and booed back home when he first tried to sell his budget. “We have an excellent Democratic candidate named Rob Zerban who got into the race largely because he couldn’t tolerate Paul Ryan’s leadership on a plan to terminate Medicare,” Rep. Steve Israel, who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which works to elect Democrats to Congress, told the Huffington Post last month. Ryan won reelection in 2010 with 67% of the vote, which makes him an improbable target, but polls suggest his budget proposal, particularly the Medicare component, is about as popular with voters as Obamacare is — which is to say, not at all. A recent Public Policy poll found Ryan’s unfavorability ratings in Wisconsin have leapt since he introduced his budget in April; 41% approved of Ryan and 46% disapproved in that survey. Still, a potentially tough reelection is hardly a catalyst to abandon ship and run for, of all things, President. Unless, of course, you’re Michele Bachmann.