Washington wonders: What is Paul Ryan up to?

What is Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanFEC filing: No individuals donated to indicted GOP rep this cycle The Hill's Morning Report - Waiting on Mueller: Answers come on Thursday Paul Ryan joins University of Notre Dame faculty MORE up to?

It’s a question many political insiders are asking amid a concerted public relations push by the new Speaker that has the markings of an unofficial presidential campaign.

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Against a backdrop of American flags, Ryan (R-Wis.) delivered a high-profile speech last month about the need for party unity that was interpreted as a head-on attack on GOP presidential front-runner Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Dems demand Barr cancel 'inappropriate' press conference on Mueller report DOJ plans to release 'lightly redacted' version of Mueller report Thursday: WaPo Nadler accuses Barr of 'unprecedented steps' to 'spin' Mueller report MORE.

He followed up with a video that some, including the Drudge Report, viewed as a campaign ad.

Ryan’s office pushed back quickly on that suggestion, but Drudge is far from alone in wondering if Ryan is laying the groundwork for a 2016 bid at July’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

Republicans inside and outside the Beltway see the young Speaker and 2012 vice presidential candidate as a shining star for the party and a stronger general election opponent against Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMcAuliffe says he won't run for president in 2020 Chuck Todd slams reports that DOJ briefed Trump on Mueller findings: 'This is actual collusion' Crowdfund campaign to aid historically black churches hit by fires raises over M MORE than either Trump or Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzO'Rourke sweeps through Virginia looking to energize campaign Disney to donate million to rebuild Notre Dame Celebs start opening their wallets for 2020 Dems MORE (R-Texas).

Many would love Ryan to emerge in Cleveland to rescue the party from what they think is a doomed presidential bid.

Still, there are a number of reasons to think that Ryan, a policy wonk who is no wink-and-a-nod politician, has no intention of being the GOP standard-bearer this year.

Rules in place would make it difficult. The GOP’s current rules state that the nominee must win the majority of delegates in at least eight states, a mark that only Trump and Cruz seem able to meet.

It’s also possible the real estate mogul could still clinch the nomination by securing the 1,237 delegates required. That would leave little room for anyone to overtake him — and Ryan is a big fan of focusing only on what you can control. 

More important, Cruz and Trump supporters would be outraged over any effort to take the nomination from their candidate.

It could be virtually impossible for a third party to sweep in and become the nominee and then win over the Cruz and Trump crowds. The backlash would leave lasting political scars that could hamper a bid down the road. 

Tea Party Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) says the speculation about Ryan becoming the nominee is “way overblown. He understands that if he were parachuted in, it would be extremely difficult or impossible to get the support of the grass roots.”

Trump has done well because of discontent within the Republican Party. Any effort to take the nomination away from Trump or Cruz, if either goes to Cleveland with far more delegates than anyone else, could hurt the GOP for years. 

“I would envision pain for years to come,” one Republican said of the possibility. 

This Republican said the GOP establishment needs a reset, something Ryan seems to realize, given his recent actions. Losing the election in 2016 could help with the reset and set the party up for victories in 2018 and 2020.

A former House leadership aide said this isn’t Ryan’s time.

Asked whether Ryan is trying to jockey for the 2016 nod, the GOP source responded, “I really don’t think so … he wants to present conservative solutions to everyday problems and show that Republicans in the House can lead and be problem solvers.”

But what about the video and the speech? And remember, Ryan said he didn’t want to be Speaker before accepting the job. So if he’s not angling, then what is he doing?

Ryan, 46, is clearly dismayed by the GOP race’s tone.

He’s tried to steer the party message toward substance and away from personalities, an effect he likely thinks would help his party in the short, medium and long terms.

And how do you attract attention if you’re not a presidential candidate in an election year? You talk about the race. That’s what Ryan is doing.

That trend will continue in the weeks and months to come. The New York Times reported this week that Ryan will unveil an agenda for the party before the convention.

If his party wins the White House in 2016, Ryan will be positioned to work with a new GOP president on a list of policy goals he’s held since winning his first election to Congress at the age of 28. Ryan can’t afford to have a divisive relationship with Trump or Cruz if either becomes the GOP nominee.

If Clinton wins the White House, Ryan will again be his party’s top officeholder and immediately will be seen as a prime contender for the Republican nomination in 2020.

He’ll want to position himself to work with, or more likely against, a new President Clinton.

As uncommon as it is for a political party to win the White House three cycles in a row, it’s even rarer to win four consecutive terms.

Another point to remember about Ryan, say those who know him well, is that he’s very focused on the present. That suggests that everything Ryan is doing is to help his party right now.

He also is enjoying his new job as Speaker. In 2015, the House was a chaotic mess as then-Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerTrump appears alongside Ocasio-Cortez on Time 100 list Resurrecting deliberative bodies Trump's decision on health care law puts spotlight on Mulvaney MORE (R-Ohio) headed for the exit.

Ryan has restored order in the lower chamber in a number of ways, including giving more power to committees and communicating with his conference.

Members complained that they couldn’t gain access to BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerTrump appears alongside Ocasio-Cortez on Time 100 list Resurrecting deliberative bodies Trump's decision on health care law puts spotlight on Mulvaney MORE, but they say Ryan has an open-door policy.

Meadows said Ryan’s communication “has fostered a lot of good will.”

The Freedom Caucus member, who introduced a measure to oust Boehner, said of Ryan: “He listens. He’s an honest broker, and he’s willing to concede a point.”

He added, “I’ve had more meaningful discussions with [Ryan] over the last 60 days than I did in the last three years under Boehner.”

That communication doesn’t mean that leadership and Tea Party lawmakers are going to agree. Along those lines, it looks like the House won’t be able to pass a budget resolution this year. But Ryan’s outreach to conservatives has gone a long way toward lessening the acrimony in the GOP conference.

AshLee Strong, the Speaker’s press secretary, said, “Speaker Ryan promised to be a communications speaker focused on advancing a positive vision for the party and a specific policy agenda. Five months after taking the gavel, you’re seeing him do exactly what he said he’d do.”