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Memo to Paul Ryan: Run for president, not Senate

There is now talk of Paul Ryan potentially running for Senate in 2012, in the wake of Democratic incumbent Herb Kohl's announcement that he is retiring. It seems unlikely, however, that this prospect will be very tempting to Ryan.

Ryan essentially has three choices: He can stand pat as House Budget Committee chairman, from which he has advanced a bold budget that has made him the de facto national leader of the Republican Party. He can run in a Democratic-leaning state, perhaps against Russ Feingold, for something like President Obama's old job as a freshman senator (though representing Wisconsin, not neighboring Illinois) -- which, at least in the short-term, might well be described as a demotion. Or he can run nationwide, in a country that is divided down the middle, for Obama's current job.

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The comparative risks and rewards do not point to a Senate run. It would not necessarily be that much easier for Ryan to beat Feingold in Wisconsin than for him to beat Obama nationwide -- or for him to beat Obama in Wisconsin, which, more likely than not, would result in Obama's defeat nationwide. Meanwhile, the payoff in beating Obama, at this pivotal moment in American history, would be that Ryan would receive the honor of holding an office that the United States Constitution vests with at least as much authority to act as it vests in all 100 U.S. senators combined.

Now, some people might argue that Obama's path through the Senate to the presidency provides support for Ryan running for the Senate. But what Obama actually showed is that opportunities come to those who are bold enough to seize them when the time is right, even though those who are more cautious wouldn't have leaped. Bill Clinton made the same successful leap in 1992.

True, Obama needed his Senate seat and couldn't realistically have run from the House any more than from the Illinois state legislature: It's one thing to be a backbench senator and quite another to be a backbench congressman. But no one really thinks that Obama's resume in 2008 was stronger than Ryan's is now; quite the opposite. Ryan is a (the?) leader on Capitol Hill; Obama never remotely was. (It is telling that Obama has criticized Ryan's votes on Afghanistan, Iraq, the Bush tax cuts, and the Medicare prescription drug benefit -- all Bush-era votes that were taken when Obama was not yet in the Senate.) Both based on his resume and his abilities, Ryan should be debating Obama in 2012, not Feingold.

The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin asks the right question:

"In a very practical sense, the question for Ryan is: Why not give his party and the country six months (September 2011 to February 2012)? By then he'll either have failed to catch fire or he'll have a clear path to the presidential nomination. Six months. Twenty-four weeks. For a politician constantly at work in Congress, in town halls and in media appearances, that doesn't sound like that much. (In fact, I would venture that his schedule is more rigorous now than the average presidential contender's.)

"You see, there is no good reason for Ryan to avoid a presidential run. Sometimes, if you don't see the opening and seize it, a better one never comes along....

"There is a lot of buzz that Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) may finally throw his hat into the ring. Ryan and his staff may think, 'Well Mitch can do it, we don't have to.' Whatever you think of Daniels, he's no Paul Ryan. Candidates aren't interchangeable, least of all these two.

"It's apparent that Daniels (most recently in suggesting he'd take the pro-choice, anti-Iraq surge, pro-North Korea engagement, pro-2006 Palestinian election, Condi Rice as a vice presidential choice) is hobbled, at the very least, by a tin ear and lack of sympatico with the GOP base."

To expand on this comparison, the list of Daniels's advantages over Ryan begins and ends with this: He has executive experience (something that tenure in the Senate wouldn't change for Ryan). Here are just a few of Ryan's advantages over Daniels: He's more charismatic and personally appealing; he's a better debater and has already successfully squared off against Obama on the budget and on Obamacare; he hasn't called for a "social truce"; he has more interest and expertise in foreign policy (governors have far less to do with foreign policy than congressmen do, and Daniels seems to have less interest in foreign policy than most governors); he's been a leader in the ongoing fights in Washington about the future direction of the country; he wasn't Bush's budget director; he's young and dynamic; and he's not afraid to criticize the president in strong, yet civil, language; and he (perhaps alone) can unite the party's establishment and Tea Party -- and social, economic, and defense -- wings.

When asked about running for president, Ryan likes to say that his head isn't that big, and his kids are too small. But our nation's problems are too big, and our window of opportunity is too small. We need him to run -- and not for the Senate. Ryan is too gifted, and this is his time. Duty calls.

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