Kavanaugh fight roils an already ugly political climate
Paul Ryan would be ‘perfect fit’ to lead AEI, Republicans say
During a brief appearance at a conservative think tank last week, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) rattled off several wonky pieces of legislation: Trade promotion authority, the REINS Act, the Humphrey-Hawkins law and Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) reform.
"If anyone had CFIUS reform in Paul Ryan bingo, congratulations," quipped conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg, who led the Thursday morning discussion with Ryan at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).
Ryan's penchant for tossing around acronyms and other wonky terminology underscores why some of his close friends and supporters think he'd be a perfect fit to lead AEI, a hub for conservative intellectuals that has cultivated a right-leaning approach to policy research and seen its influence grow on Capitol Hill.
"It's a perfect fit. Paul would be extraordinary," said former House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), who has served alongside Ryan in Congress for nearly 20 years and is friends with several AEI board members. "That's always been my thought, that this would be a landing spot for Paul, because he is a policy wonk. He knows all these people and would continue the mission" of AEI.
"AEI would be a very nice fit for him," added Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a senior appropriator and Ryan ally. "It's intellectual. Right up his alley."
The parallel retirements of Ryan and AEI's longtime president, Arthur Brooks, has triggered rampant speculation on and off Capitol Hill that the outgoing Speaker could succeed one of Washington's most celebrated conservative thinkers.
Ryan is cut from the same cloth as his longtime friend, who is more of a happy warrior than a go-to-the-mat ideological bomb-thrower.
For his part, Ryan isn't participating in any speculation about his future. He says he's completely focused on helping Republicans retain the majority in the November midterms, namely by touting the 2017 tax-cuts package and other GOP accomplishments under President Trump.
"Speaker Ryan is running through the tape this year, and not focused on his next chapter at this time," his spokeswoman, AshLee Strong, said in a statement.
Brooks, whom sources spotted making the rounds on Capitol Hill recently, was unavailable for an interview for this story. AEI officials declined to comment on any specific Ryan rumors but have launched a national search committee to find Brooks's replacement - and seem to be in no hurry. Brooks, 54, a former Syracuse University professor, has led the organization for the past decade.
"AEI's Board of Trustees is in the early stages of the executive search process, which is scheduled to be completed before June 2019, when Arthur plans to step down," said AEI spokesman Michael Pratt.
Ryan, 48, cited family reasons in his decision to retire from Congress, saying he doesn't want to just be a "weekend dad" to his three teenage children. But the Janesville, Wis., native could set his own terms if he is recruited for the AEI job - similar to how Ryan made spending weekends at home one of his conditions for accepting the Speaker's gavel in 2015.
Mitt Romney's 2012 vice presidential running mate, Ryan has raised more than $160 million for the GOP as Speaker. His fundraising prowess and donor network would be attractive to a think tank like AEI that is funded by individual and corporate donors, Republicans argued.
"Ryan is a conservative policy wonk. He brings gravitas and fundraising to a foundation like that," said a senior GOP aide. "That's gonna be the challenge of replacing Arthur Brooks - everyone loved talking to him because he can articulate complex ideas in a casual way."
Brooks's salary now tops $1 million a year, according to Charity Navigator, and Ryan would be expected to make just as much. But some Republicans surmised that the Speaker could land a much more lucrative job on K Street consulting for big corporations, even while working from his home in Janesville.
"Ryan can get a job right now making $5 million a year and making three phone calls a week," said a top conservative GOP aide. "If I'm a company and my appropriations is getting held up, a call from the Speaker is worth whatever you want to pay for it."
Still, the prospect of a big payday for Ryan on K Street hasn't stopped chatter about whether Ryan would - or should - take the helm of AEI.
"I've heard that rumor," Cole told The Hill.
"It's not out of the realm of possibility," added Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), a member of Ryan's leadership team.
For one, the timing works. Ryan plans to stay on as Speaker until January, and Brooks won't be stepping down from AEI until next summer.
Ryan also has the policy credentials, fundraising chops and charisma that would be required to lead the prominent think tank.
Founded in 1938, AEI puts out policy papers, hosts events and sends experts to testify on Capitol Hill. The think tank has helped inform conservative thinking on a range of policy issues for decades, including limited government, economics and social welfare, but AEI does not take official institutional positions.
Ryan, who has a well-documented love of charts and graphs, has spent his congressional career pursuing entitlement reform and tax reform. The Speaker finally achieved one of his life's objectives last year when the GOP sent an overhaul of the tax code to Trump's desk.
Ryan, a former chairman of the Budget and Ways and Means committees, has outlined his public policy vision in his "Better Way" agenda, which contains principles closely aligned with those of AEI.
"AEI is a terrific think tank, they truly are the premier think tank that there is ... Arthur's shoes are big to fill," Upton said. "In my view, Paul would be the best. But I've not had discussions with anybody about that."
If Ryan landed at AEI, his D.C. journey would come full circle. Shortly after arriving in Washington in the early 1990s, he landed a job at Empower America, a conservative advocacy group founded by former presidential candidate Jack Kemp and former Education Secretary Bill Bennett. Kemp and Bennett would become two of Ryan's most influential political mentors.
The position at the D.C.-based think tank also would keep Ryan in the political game, should the former VP candidate consider a presidential bid down the road.
At Thursday's AEI event, Ryan said he didn't have all the answers about how Republicans could combat the "alt-right," nationalist movement that has crept into the Grand Old Party. But he acknowledged that he'd have more time to contemplate and solve issues after he steps down from the Speakership.
"I look forward to having time to think about this stuff," he said. "How do we get the core back, how do we get back to classical liberalism properly understood in the 21st century so that we can relegate this stuff to the ash heap it belongs to?"
Ryan is also appealing in academic circles - and some lawmakers are even clamoring to have him land in their home states.
Cole said he floated Ryan to be the president of the University of Oklahoma. But after the school inquired, Ryan said he wasn't interested, according to Cole.
"I hate to see him leave, but I want to see him go do what he wants to do," Cole said. "He would be fabulous at anything he's gonna do."