In an election year, politicians tend to be light on policy specifics (closer to Donald Trump’s platitudes than to Mitt Romney’s 59-point jobs plan). That’s because revealing too much too soon creates a target that opponents can attack for a longer period of time. Paul Ryan recognized this in 2012 when Romney approached him about joining the presidential ticket.
Romney accepted Ryan, budget cuts and all, but lost the 2012 election anyway.
This time around, Speaker Ryan looks to push a congressional reform agenda he describes as “propositional” not “oppositional.” His goal is to have a tangible plan laid out this spring–before the 2016 general election. In other words, whoever becomes the Republican nominee will own Ryan’s congressional agenda.
“I want our party to be the party of opportunity, upward mobility and the party with better ideas for fighting poverty…[and] since I want our party to be that, it goes without saying I want the House Republicans to do that, as well.”
Inspired by the late Jack Kemp, Ryan addresses poverty, an issue on which Republicans have traditionally led from behind. Preliminary insights suggest that the Speaker wants to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and to consolidate the sprawling federal funding for various poverty initiatives into “opportunity grants” that can be managed by the states. In addition to the poverty proposals, Ryan’s reform priorities include erecting a sturdier firewall to prevent an overactive executive from usurping Congress’ legislative duties.
But will Paul Ryan’s reform agenda burden the Republican presidential nominee? That depends on who wins the nomination, of course.
Ryan’s tone competes with the angry voices vowing to buck “establishment RINOs” who “don’t fight back” against “amnesty.” On the presidential campaign trail, this tonal divide is clear: Governors Jeb Bush and John Kasich join Senator Marco Rubio in Ryan’s eagerness to transform the GOP from loyal opposition party into a forward leaning majority party. In fact, when Ryan held a three day retreat in Baltimore to discuss the 2016 agenda, each of these gentlemen attended. Notably absent from the retreat, the two candidates most identified by anger, Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz.
“Let’s be frank about it: Paul does not want Donald Trump or Ted Cruz speaking for the party,” says one Republican leadership source, who requested anonymity to speak candidly.
Herein lies the problem. Many Republicans believe that Democrats benefit by framing their policies in an affirmative fashion. Democrats want to “give” people health insurance. They want to “give” people free college education. They want to “give” women the right to choose an abortion. Republicans, on the other hand, appear to be “against” healthcare, free college and reproductive choice. Most voters want more of everything, not less. This puts Republicans at a disadvantage, unless we learn to reframe the conversation.
Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and Jeb Bush, appeal to the Republican mainstream because they speak in terms of aspiration and optimism. They speak with the very tone Paul Ryan would like to advance. By contrast, Ted Cruz regularly uses verbs like “annihilate,” “destroy,” and “dismantle.” Donald Trump’s ban on Muslim visitors and immigrants, his staunch desire to erect a physical barrier to immigration, and his promise to punish businesses who choose to operate in a friendlier climate, all use threatening language that does not advance a positive view of conservatism.
Speaker Ryan understands that he and Mitt Romney won the 2012 election on issues, but lost on empathy. He understands Jack Kemp’s axiom: “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” That is why Ryan is working tirelessly to unite the Republican Party and grow it, by showing the country what positive politics looks like.
If we nominate the wrong candidate, though, we may do more than lose the election–we may significantly damage the conservative movement.