Paul Ryan didn’t know until after he became speaker of the House that it meant he’d also be chairing the Republican presidential nominating convention in July.
He also didn’t know becoming chairman meant that he might be walking into a firestorm.
The sharply divisive Republican primary contest means that, instead of a largely ceremonial role, Ryan is almost certainly going to end up with the unenviable job of trying to piece back together a shattered Republican Party.
Whether that task will mean trying to unite a splintered party behind an unpredictable outsider, Donald Trump, or brokering a contested convention where Republicans slug it out over possible alternatives, Ryan will likely be on the hot seat. And everyone will be watching to see whether he is trying to tilt the outcome.
The stakes could hardly be higher, both for the party and Ryan personally. So far, the Wisconsin Republican has cultivated a reputation for leadership as speaker without doing much actual leading outside the ranks of loyalists in the House.
“There are dangers there for Paul,” said Morton Blackwell, a Virginian who is a member of the Republican National Committee and its Standing Committee on Rules, as well as a Ted Cruz backer.
One of the biggest risks surrounds the party’s frontrunner, Trump, who has minced no words when it comes to the prospect of a contested convention that nominates someone other than the billionaire.
“I think you’d have riots,” he told CNN Wednesday. “I wouldn’t lead it but I think bad things would happen.”
Ryan, the party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee, already has been prompted to deny that he has any interest – or intent – to claim the nomination for himself.
“It’s not going to be me,” Ryan told reporters Thursday. “It’s going to be somebody running for president.”
Ryan and his office have been downplaying his convention chairman’s role, calling it largely “ceremonial.” But on Thursday, Ryan said he and others involved in the convention are “now getting our minds around” the idea that it could be an open convention.
“My goal is to be dispassionate, and to be Switzerland,” Ryan said Thursday. “And to make sure that the delegates make their decision however the rules require them to do that.”
The chairman of the Republican convention is traditionally the top House Republican leader, who manages the convention under the rules of the House.
A description provided by Ryan’s office notes the chairman typically opens and closes the convention and signs nominating documents for all states and territories. The chairman also is the presiding officer over the actual roll call vote for the nomination for president and vice president. The document says the chairman is “not necessarily at all involved in any negotiating if no one receives a majority after the first ballot.”
Yet, much of the perception nationally, if not the reality, will be that Ryan will be among the party leaders pulling strings to orchestrate a desired outcome, particularly if the nomination is contested.
At the least, Ryan’s role as chairman will make him a prominent face of the convention that could be marked in history by protests, high emotions and intense floor fights.
Greg Magarian, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said “a brokered convention would automatically spur complaints about an undemocratic process.” In addition, if Ryan ultimately allowed himself to be considered for the nomination, some of the potential attacks against him could be even more intense. “He would, in that event, face accusations of undue ambition,” said Magarian.
“Ryan is between a rock and a hard place. In other words, between Scylla and Charybdis,” suggests Steffen Schmidt, a political scientist at Iowa State University.
Trump’s loss in the Ohio primary to Ohio Gov. John Kasich has cast some doubt on whether Trump can assemble a 1,237 delegate majority before arriving in Cleveland and win the nomination on a first ballot. Some in the party are already predicting Trump will fall short and are gaming out how a convention fight could play out in second or third round balloting, or beyond.
Cruz, the Texas senator who is in second place in the delegate race, said at last week’s Republican presidential debate in Miami he is preparing for a contested convention against Trump. He warned it would be “absolute disaster” for the party to go along with those who “want to parachute in their favored Washington candidate to be the nominee.”
Against this backdrop, Ryan faces some of the same types of hazards as the Republican convention chairman that he’s been been facing in the House in his five months as speaker – only more public and on a grander scale.
Schmidt said Ryan knows he must try to keep the Republican Party glued together in a year in when it is deeply divided, and that Trump is much of the cause of the divisions. But he also must be seen as a neutral arbiter of the rules.
Yet, the convention rules are negotiable, Schmidt said. He and others noted the rules committee will have been meeting in the days before Ryan even officially gavels in the convention on July 18. “The party leadership can rewrite the process in the interest of the United States democracy, and the GOP” said Schmidt.
Curly Haugland of North Dakota, a long-time member of the RNC standing rules committee, said he believes convention rules already are in place that declare getting “nearly enough” delegates won’t do.
“Close only counts in grenades and horseshoes” and not the Republican nominating convention. No one would be “stealing” anything from Trump under the letter of the current rules, he said.
Among other specific rule changes that could also be considered is one that now sets a threshold for a presidential candidate to appear on a convention ballot. Changing that could be a way to open up a first-ballot vote to candidates other than Trump or Cruz, such as Kasich. The rule, pushed in 2012 by party leaders to block the seating of Ron Paul delegates, requires a candidate to have won the majority of delegates in eight states or territories, something Kasich likely won’t achieve by July.
Another rules battle could involve questions about whether delegates are even bound to cast their votes at the convention according to primary vote results in the first round of voting; some rules members like Haugland say they are not.
To the extent that Ryan, who is not a rules committee member, might seek to influence the committee, even from a distance, will almost certainly be closely monitored.
Haughland said the committee’s decisions on rules changes “will be baked in the cake” before Ryan formally take over his duties. As a result, he said Ryan’s actual power welding the gavel is “simply pixie dust.”
Blackwell differs. Ryan must be careful, said Blackwell, even if only because of public perceptions of how he deals with potentially contentious moments on the convention floor.
There are other dangers out there for Ryan, he said, including misunderstandings about his role, or unintentional slights or controversies over the chairman not recognizing some of those asking for recognition on the floor, or cutting them off.
The House rules are more restrictive on the rights of individuals, giving the convention chairman authority to recognize whom he pleases. Few people, unless they have served in the Congress or served on staff, have a understanding of those rules.
“If Paul were to ask me for my advice, I would say he has to go out of his way to inform everybody that he is going to carefully pay attention to what is on the floor,” said Blackwell. “If delegation chairman calls for recognition by the chair, give that chairman recognition, and not allow a situation.”
Rep. Tom Marino of Pennsylvania, one of a handful of House Republicans who have backed Trump, said he will be vocal against attempts to “change the rules that we play by” or rig the convention against the billionaire.
“I don’t think Paul’s going to let it happen,” said Marino. “I don’t think Paul is interested in being part of a collapse of the Republican Party.”