Rahm Emanuel and Paul Ryan

No matter the fate of the Romney ticket this November, Paul Ryan—who is scheduled to deliver the biggest speech of his life on Wednesday night in Tampa—is sure to try down the line for the nomination for the top spot. And my guess is that Congressman Ryan and our own Mayor Rahm Emanuel could end up running against each other for president—if not in 2016, then in 2020. 

Some ten years younger than Rahm, their House service overlapped—Ryan winning his first election in 1998 and Rahm in 2000—and they served together on the House Ways and Means Committee. They were both considered by the punditry—Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post, for example—to be up-and comers, or, as the Washingtonian put it in its 2008 “Best & Worst of Congress” list, “rising star[s].” (Ryan that year won runner-up status for “Workhorse” and Rahm won a three-way tie for “Show Horse”; both won “big support” for “Member I’d Like to See as President in 2012.”)

Had Rahm not answered Obama’s call to quit Congress and become White House chief-of-staff, he likely would have fulfilled his ambition of becoming the first Jewish Speaker of the House—his launching pad to becoming America’s first Jewish president. (Rahm saw himself returning to the House, as evidenced in the chat he had with Blago in 2008 about the then-gov appointing a placeholder, Forrest Claypool, to Emanuel’s congressional seat.)  

Ryan was not without ambition, but he took a different route. A Wall Street Journal editorial in 2008 urged Ryan to challenge John Boehner for a leadership spot, but Ryan demurred, looking to make his mark as the head of the Budget Committee. 

So what’s the relationship between the two go-getters? My hunch is that they’re friends. Hours of research, going back to the earliest overlap years in Congress, show some disgruntled progressives wondering why Rahm, when he headed the DCCC, didn’t try harder to give Ryan, who waltzed into office most elections (with 68 percent of the vote in 2010) some real competition in a district that voted, narrowly, for Obama in 2008. (The Almanac of American Politics rates Wisconsin’s 1st District, which includes all of Racine and Kenosha Counties as well as Lake Geneva, a “tilt Republican” district.)

In March 2009, Obama hosted a White House East Room dinner for congressional leaders—Democratic chairmen of congressional committees and the committees’ ranking Republicans— and their spouses. A “charm offensive,” the AP’s Philip Elliott called it. Elliott described Emanuel, then chief-of-staff, as “laughingly warn[ing] nearby …Paul Ryan, …who has been a critic of Obama’s spending plan: `Don’t be a jerk.’” In Rahm-speak, that likely counts as affectionate.

In December 2010, after the Republicans took the House, and Ryan was about to become chairman of the House Budget Committee, he told a Christian Science Monitor–sponsored breakfast for reporters that he has little contact with Obama and others in the White House. “They don’t talk to us,” he said, but added that he regularly talked to Rahm (before Emanuel left for Chicago to run for mayor). 

Most telling, Mayor Rahm has not gone out of his way to make nasty comments about Ryan since his ascension to national fame—at least not in the hearing of reporters. A harsh partisan, yes, but Rahm respects brains—and Ryan has those for sure. The mayor also respects hard work, and Ryan is big on that, too, laboring nights in his Longworth House Office Building suite, which doubles as his bedroom.

And then there’s another deep bond—a concern about such arcane matters as body fat index. They were regulars at the House gym. (No reports that Rahm does the P90X workout that Paul Ryan has made famous.)

Rahm would likely have the ear of a Vice President Ryan. As I follow the doings of our mayor and look, especially, at his financial backers, I’ve adapted a famous phrase named after a long-dead politician and VP- and presidential-aspirant, Nelson Rockefeller. “Rockefeller Republican” has been updated in my head to “Rahm Republican.”

On the other hand, no doubt Rahm is all in for Obama and will do what’s necessary to make sure the president is re-elected. By November, the word “jerk” might carry a much less friendly tone.


Photography: (Emanuel) Esther Kang; (Ryan) Chicago Tribune