Joe Biden and Paul Ryan Face Decisions That Could Shape Politics for Years to Come

The two men, who faced off in the 2012 vice presidential debate, are each at a crossroads.
Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Former rivals Vice President Joe Biden and Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan are facing looming decisions that will help shape the future of American politics. 

Neither Ryan, who is being pressured to run for speaker of the House, nor Biden, who is weighing another presidential run, has made up his mind, according to those close to the two men. The dual clocks, meanwhile, are ticking down fast.

Biden and Ryan, who faced off to a draw in the 2012 vice presidential debate, in some ways are confronting similar decisions from parallel perspectives: family is the key. Both have savvy spouses who serve as their main political advisers and biggest boosters. But multiple people familiar with their thinking say Janna Ryan and Jill Biden worry about the pending political prospects, because of the implications for their families, particularly the younger children. Ryan has three school-aged kids who count on his frequent presence at home; Biden is the hands-on patriarch of a tight family unit that includes the late Beau Biden’s two children. Beau’s passing several months ago remains the signal defining emotional experience for the whole close-knit Biden clan.

Both Biden and Ryan are feeling the burden to just say yes, those familiar with the two men say. Biden knows that his decades-long career at the highest level of American politics would effectively be over if he passes on 2016. Moreover, the vice president firmly believes he would be the most qualified person in the race, both the most likely to hold the White House for his party and the most prepared to be president. Pointedly, Hillary Clinton is not excluded from Biden’s thinking on those scores, in part because of her actions regarding the personal e-mail server she used as secretary of state and the intermingling of Clinton personal financial business and foundation activities.

QuickTake Speaker of the House

The pressure on Ryan, meanwhile, is all external. He was gobsmacked at the end of last week when California Representative Kevin McCarthy, widely expected to replace John Boehner as speaker, abruptly withdrew from the race, rousing an instant and intense clamor for Ryan to take the job instead. Unlike Biden, who has wanted to be president since the Beatles were playing the Palladium, Ryan has never aspired to be speaker.

The demands on Ryan to run are coming from all quarters, most intensely from the top of the congressional wing of the Republican Party. According to sources familiar with the efforts to get Ryan to move from an extremely reluctant “maybe” to a grudging “yes,” he has been in extensive contact with Boehner, McCarthy, and Oregon Representative Greg Walden.

Despite all the gravity and drama, Ryan is in no rush to make a decision. He is hoping that the 10-day congressional recess will cool down the urgency of the recruitment effort.

Not every Republican is sold on the idea of Ryan as speaker, including members of the so-called Freedom Caucus, a group nearly 40 of the most conservative House Republicans, who effectively forced Boehner to give up the gavel and who played a key role in McCarthy’s sudden abandonment of his bid. Ryan’s allies say he is not willing to make deals with the Freedom Caucus or other members in order to win their support. The conservatives’ current lists of demands on policy are long, and the process by which the chamber operates is not to their liking. Ryan has no intention of engaging in a bitter battle with wary foes to win a job he doesn’t want. He doesn’t require the unanimous support of every Republican in the House to stand for speaker, but, his allies say, it has to be something pretty close to that, and the conference has to come to him.

The other hurdles involve the irritants and appended responsibilities that come with the speaker’s title. In short, Ryan is a policy guy and the speakership is a political job burdened with endless strategic considerations. And Ryan likes that he still can lead a somewhat normal life—engaging in his beloved outdoor activities, watching sports on TV, and spending time with his kids—while rolling up his sleeves as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. Being speaker threatens all that.

Both Walden, chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, which raises money for GOP House candidates, and McCarthy have worked to address the latter concerns, telling Ryan that other members, especially those in the leadership, could assume some of the immense burden of fundraising, and the requisite coast to coast weekend travel it entails. They have also privately proposed that the leadership team under Ryan could be structured in such a way that other members could help run the House day to day, including handling the time-consuming task of listening to members’ special requests and ideas.

Boehner, those familiar with the discussions between the two men say, has been making the case to Ryan that as speaker he could continue to work on the policy issues, such as tax and entitlement reform, that have been his passion on Ways and Means. Boehner and other Ryan proponents eager to get him to “yes” are telling him his role as speaker could be largely confined to crafting a long-term vision for the party, shaping a policy agenda, and delivering a public message through television appearances.‎

Echoing Boehner and McCarthy, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has reportedly told Ryan that he sees no other alternative for the speaker job, and has painted a somewhat apocalyptic short-term future if Ryan won’t accede. A failure to efficiently deal with the debt ceiling in November, or pass a resolution to fund the government in December could have serious repercussions for the party, McConnell argues, that could imperil the GOP's hold on the Senate. It could also have an adverse impact on the party’s chances to win the White House, according to McConnell and other leading Republicans, who have talked to Ryan.

All the GOP leaders who are pressing Ryan say they see no alternative and worry that a weak or interim speaker would be a disaster, leaving the GOP balkanized with power devolving to committee chairs, whose rise would only highlight the absence of a clear message or strategy to navigate the party’s complexities in a presidential year.

As of now, Ryan is said to agree that an interim speaker is a bad idea and he doesn’t see another natural choice to run the House if he stays put. 

All of Ryan’s associates agree that he definitively does not want to be speaker, although they are split on what the outcome will be. Some believe the conservatives are not going to unite in joining the draft movement, and that alone will be enough to keep Ryan from taking the job. Others say the absence of any other alternative will prey on Ryan’s sense of obligation to the party, forcing him to accept a job he’s never wanted.

As for Biden, there’s no doubt he does want the job dangling in front of him, those who have spoken to him say. The challenge is adding additional emotional strain on his family with the grueling process of running for president, and the varied, nebulous risks of losing the nomination fight or the general election.

Biden and Ryan share fundamental traits: both are patriotic, neither is pretentious, and neither would seek power for power’s sake. Fitting, they are both spending the weekend deliberating with family in their respective and beloved home states. Sources close to both men say their wives, while reluctant, will support their ultimate choices.

Before too long, their decisions will be revealed. Their families will breathe a sigh of relief no matter the outcome, as the pressure of contemplation lifts. And then their choices will reverberate throughout the political world in ways that no one, not even these two deliberative and sophisticated men, can possibly game out. 

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