Can anybody unite a party that’s at war with itself? That’s the question Republicans are asking, and the answer might be former vice-presidential contender Paul Ryan, whose low profile amidst the intra-party squabbling suggests he is deftly positioning himself as Speaker in waiting or the GOP’s last best hope for 2016—either way a Hobson’s choice given the demoralized state of the party.

Ryan wrote the budget that balances in 10 years, and that helped bring Congress to its knees, unable to find the votes to pass any of its traditional priorities, a farm bill or a transportation bill, much less a kinder, gentler budget that could get Democratic votes. With Republicans holding out for deep spending cuts, Ryan decamped to his Wisconsin district, assuring his constituents that he stands ready to help them navigate the challenges of enrolling in Obamacare even as he pledges to continue working to delay implementing the law.

It’s the kind of balancing act that the 43-year-old Ryan has gotten good at, acting and sounding like the grownup who seeks compromise while still keeping lines open to the Tea Party wing of his party that opposes any accommodation with Democrats. “He knows how to use the words that are magic words for the Right without sounding like some lunatic,” says Norman Ornstein with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.  

With the GOP leadership in disarray, Ryan has been unusually quiet for much of this year. A spokesman says he didn’t want to engage the president and indicate any bitterness after the hard-fought campaign. His careful approach can also be seen as laying the groundwork for 2016, as well as preserving his options for moving up in the House should the current GOP leadership implode, which cannot be discounted given the level of rancor in the party.

“The beauty of having run for vice president, you don’t have to spend every single day sweating for headlines,” says Jack Pitney, professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College. “Republicans know who Paul Ryan is. He doesn’t have to work building his public profile. He does need to work on building his record, and that means trying to accomplish things.”

Ryan distances himself from all talk of a potential government shutdown if members can’t break the logjam. “The only people talking about a government shutdown are looking for political gain, and that’s certainly not Congressman Ryan,” says William Allison, House Budget committee press secretary.

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