The Republican Party has chosen its leader.
It's not Mitt Romney, whose convincing Illinois victory carries him one small step further on his slog through the primary swamp. This falls into the category of "states Mitt wins without winning the news cycle since everyone knew he would win" -- which is preferable to "states Mitt loses and loses this media cycle because he should won," but still not that remarkable.
Pundits and bookies still make him the likely nominee. But who cares? He isn't the leader of his party.
Nor is it Rick Santorum. He's making a pugnacious and surprisingly persistent run at the nomination, but only by stirring up passionate pockets of the party who were waiting for someone to reawaken the debates of the 50s. Santorum may energize a certain segment of voters, but he is not the driving force of the party he hopes will nominate him.
No, this week the GOP demonstrated again who their leader is: Representative Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Congress Member who, for the second year in a row, has made news by laying out a vision for the budget that slashes investment in America, unravels the social safety net, and seeks to reshape America into a radically different country.
What makes him the leader isn't how extreme he is (you can't get more extreme than Santorum). The qualities that make him the leader is that he's direct enough to stand by his plan, he's effective enough to insert his ideas into the public debate and most of all that Republicans are willing to follow him.
None of which is to say his ideas are any good. When he attacked Medicare last year, the GOP was ready to follow him lemming-like over a cliff, even losing a conservative seat in an upstate New York special election before the American public got distracted by Anthony Weiner's Twitter troubles. Politics aside, his plan is just bad policy. It makes America less competitive by decreasing funding to transportation and necessary infrastructure. It places more faith in the market to handle retirement funds…a notion the past four years should have swept into the dustbin of history. And his obsession with cuts coupled with his refusal to discuss revenue reveals an non-seriousness about the real work of governing.
That said, a year ago, he played the Pied Piper leading the media and the Democrats into deficit-and-debt-centric discussions until Occupy finally shifted the debate to wealth disparity. He has been remarkable at giving the Republicans -- a party most comfortable saying no -- something they can say yes to (though it is note-worthy that fewer of them are saying yes quite as quickly this year). In a primary season that has been flooded by vicious SuperPAC-funded ads, he has kept his focus on a target that isn't fellow Republicans.
No wonder there keeps being talk of him emerging as a possible surprise savior out of a brokered convention. His willingness to stick with an unpopular opinion reveals Romney's weakness. His deftness at steering the debate should teach Ron Paul a thing or two. And his ability to rally Republicans reminds us how little Newt or Rick can rally anyone.
I don't think Paul Ryan would be a good president, and I believe his chances of winning would be similar to the current crop. But even if he lost, his candidacy would stand for something.
As it is, the likely candidate, Mitt Romney, will be running on a Ryan plan because he can't afford to run from it. Ryan, meanwhile, doesn't pay much mind to what Romney is saying on the campaign trail -- because he doesn't have to. And that's why for all his limitations, and despite Romney's Illinois win, it's Ryan who has already won the heart of the Republican Party this election year.