April 12, 2016

I've been thinking that Paul Ryan is running for president, but I'm starting to believe that that's not what's going on:

While Mr. Ryan has repeatedly said that he has no intention of becoming his party’s nominee this year, he is already deep into his own parallel national operation to counter Donald J. Trump and help House and Senate candidates navigate the political headwinds that Mr. Trump would generate as the party’s standard-bearer -- or, for that matter, Senator Ted Cruz, who is only slightly more popular.

Mr. Ryan is creating a personality and policy alternative to run alongside the presidential effort -- one that provides a foundation to rebuild if Republicans splinter and lose in the fall. “He is running a parallel policy campaign,” said Senator Tim Scott, Republican of South Carolina.

He is shaping an agenda that he plans to roll out right before the convention, a supplement of sorts to the official party platform.

I keep thinking back to something posted by Chuck Todd and his First Read crew at NBC back in December:

Our prediction: The Republican Party will not surrender and let Trump be its nominee without a protracted fight.... While none of these folks in charge of winning House/Senate elections want Trump at the top of the GOP ticket, many MIGHT welcome a Trump independent candidacy. Why? It might giftwrap the presidency for the Democrats, but it would potentially bring more right-leaning folks to the polls, and there aren't many three-way races down the ballot. Could a Trump indie candidacy save the Senate for the GOP? Something to ponder.

That was when it seemed plausible that Trump could bolt the GOP. But Trump hung in and won a lot of primaries, and now he's missed the opportunity to start laying the groundwork for a third-party bid. Establishment Republicans missed the deadline, too -- at one point it seemed that they might run a third-party candidate, on the assumption that the GOP was going to lose with Trump anyway. With two candidates, angry and less angry Republican voters are motivated to show up at the polls. They vote Republican all the way down the ballot and the Republican gains in recent years aren't reversed.

The Ryan pseudo-campaign really might be the GOP establishment's way of running a third-party campaign without actually putting another presidential candidate on the ballot. The establishmentarians might have weighed all the options and concluded that, yes, they want a tamer, more domesticated conservative message out there, but they don't want to split the presidential vote -- hey, they might beat Trump at the convention and nominate a candidate who can win, or Trump might secure the nomination and start seeming electable, and they don't want to forgo either of those possibilities. But if this year's nominee is doomed, they're running Ryan as a non-nominee for non-president.

This actually harks back to the old Republican strategy. For years, the GOP used the increasingly rabid right-wing media for recruitment and loyalty-building. Crazy things were said on Fox News and talk radio, at Free Republic and World Net Daily -- all of which kept the yahoos loyal to the GOP and conservatism. And then some "respectable" figure, maybe Lindsey Graham or John McCain or, well, Paul Ryan -- would go on the Sunday talk shows and persuade more moderate voters that the GOP was house-trained and you could trust it around your kids, and never mind the scary noises coming from the radio dial every time Limbaugh or Savage was on the air.

The GOP always wants a respectable figure running for president, but Trump and Cruz are making that unlikely this year. However, "running" Ryan as a non-presidential candidate revives the multiple-target-market strategy. I'm not an expert on this, but I think it's called brand stretching. The marketing of Ryan is an upward stretch for the Republican brand, an attempt to regain sophisticated customers. Ryan is the ideal embodiment of this campaign, because the non-right-wing press loves him and will happily sell him to middle-of-the-road voters.

I'm not sure Republicans really have to go to all this trouble to salvage the House and the Senate, given Democrats' habitual disregard of down-ballot races. But the GOP's not taking any chances. I expect it to work.

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