Paul Ryan won't agree to be the next speaker of the House of Representatives unless the reactionary conservatives who comprise the House Freedom Caucus agree to meet his terms, most of which are agreeable or vague enough to pose no serious problems. He wants to avoid the dull but exhausting fundraising responsibilities that come with the job, so he can enjoy weekends with his family, and make his speakership more ideological than managerial.
But one condition is meant to bring the rowdy caucus that deposed John Boehner to heel. This is the sticking point that could put an end to the Ryan-for-speaker clamor. And the irony is that, though this central demand is extraordinary, it's probably also inadequate to the task of isolating and neutralizing the members making the Republican Party ungovernable.
Before he'll agree to enter the race, Ryan wants to change the rule that made the coup threats against Boehner credible. Right now any member can introduce a privileged motion to vacate the speakership. The existence of this arcane motion has become the source of most of the Freedom Caucus' power. If you know you can deny the current speaker the 218 votes he needs to keep his job, you can control him. This is an innovation—something that never loomed over Nancy Pelosi or other previous speakers as a constant existential threat. Ryan wants to erect unspecified obstacles that would effectively deweaponize it.
Under the status quo, any Republican speaker who crosses the Freedom Caucus is in jeopardy. That's why Boehner was never able to control his conference or lead House Republicans in a unified front of opposition. It's also why members of the Freedom Caucus are reluctant to accept Ryan's terms.
The nature of these terms suggests Ryan sees this single, far-reaching one as a panacea—or if not that, then the only thing that'll allow him to run the House successfully, without sacrificing the conservative bona fides he'll need to win a future GOP presidential primary. This thinking is probably incorrect.
Assuming conservatives are willing to bite—an unsafe assumption—the Freedom Caucus' leverage won't disappear. It'll shrink, yes, but then it'll migrate to other avenues of mischief. If they continued banding together, conservatives would still be able to spoil the party's legislative agenda. This alone would damage Ryan's longer-term political prospects, by forcing him into regular governing coalitions with Democrats. Unable to depose the speaker, they could take aim at other powerful Republicans (like, perhaps, those on the rules committee who will enable Ryan and help him advance legislation), becoming more like a third party than they already are. New opportunities for troublemaking would spring up everywhere, overlooked in the past because they weren't necessary.
Late Tuesday, several Republicans speculated that Ryan intentionally devised his demands to be rejected, so that he could escape the onus of the speakership, and blame the Freedom Caucus for driving him away. If that's his endgame, he'd better hope conservatives don't call his bluff.