Paul Ryan: The Silent Speaker

Paul D. Ryan was one of the few reassuring touchstones for traditional Republicans, assuring them that the GOP hadn’t completely imploded. As a result, many of the pieces written about Ryan’s decision not to run for reelection in 2018 conflate his exit with the end of a Republican Party once characterized by people like Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp. As the party ambles through the Donald Trump wilderness, its experienced navigators continue to fall away, most notably in sight of an unfavorable wave election. Pew Research Center notes that about 38 Republican House Members will not seek reelection–a near record high. Add to that list, Paul D. Ryan whose announced departure from the House of Representatives has inspired numerous articles about his legacy.

Poring over the pieces recounting his triumphs and failings, I have found the most mystifying articles those castigating the Speaker for not “speaking out” more strongly against President Donald Trump. I truly struggle to understand this critique, if it is, in fact, made in good faith.

I think it is important to note that these articles come from a liberal perspective (there may be conservative writers criticizing Ryan on similar grounds, but I have not seen them yet). This observation matters for two reasons: first, liberals tend to overestimate the power of protesting.

For example, Ronald Brownstein writes in The Atlantic:

“Ryan blinked at confronting the president’s appeals to white racial resentments. Pressed for reaction to comments like Trump’s reported description of African nations as ‘shithole’ countries, Ryan managed to mumble the bare minimum of plausible criticism: ‘The first thing that came to my mind was very unfortunate, unhelpful.’ For most people genuinely distressed by Trump’s remarks, ‘unfortunate’ and ‘unhelpful’ were probably not the first words that came to mind; ‘racist’ and ‘xenophobic’ were.”

What exactly Brownstein believes a more forceful condemnation would have done escapes me. Donald Trump would not reflect on those comments and apologize. In fact, when Ryan said that Trump’s comments about Judge Gonzalo Curiel were an example of textbook racism, nothing changed. Of course, a decent person does not wear the label “racist” as a “badge of honor,” but I suspect that Brownstein would not characterize the President as a decent person. Who would?

On the other hand, what we do know is that President Trump works with people who “say nice things” about him. So, besides obliterate any possibility that Ryan could achieve his own legislative ends, those policies once associated with Republicans, what would harsher criticism have accomplished?

This, of course, is the point, and is the second reason why this particular criticism comes from the left: Liberals want a crippled GOP. A crippled GOP can’t pass tax cuts, or curtail government spending. A crippled GOP can’t reform entitlements, and it cannot do so in Ryan’s image if Ryan is feuding with a mercurial president who has no grand vision. In other words, goading Ryan and other traditional Republicans to follow the Jeff Flake model is a surefire way to ensure that no part of a conservative agenda is served. In the face of criticism Trump doesn’t change. He tweets. The offending politician may lose his or her job, and the GOP distills, becoming even more Trumpian–even more difficult to defend.

Furthermore, Paul Ryan is not a commentator. His role in the political process is to compromise with people with whom he disagrees to win legislative victories for the people who elected him. Ryan worked with President Barack Obama and with the House Freedom Caucus to accomplish as much as he could, a task that required him to speak strategically, not emotionally. Not symbolically. Perhaps in a new role he will have the freedom to speak for himself and to solely bear the responsibility of what he says. Perhaps he will choose, still, to refrain. Either way, he hadn’t that freedom before.

As for the articles suggesting that the Trumpian changes in the GOP are forcing out thoughtful conservatives like Ryan, there can be no doubt.

Ryan’s Reformicons Lead the Way

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.

 

“When he [Romney] asked me, I said, ‘you do realize that I’m the guy with all the budget cuts. If you put me on the ticket, you own this budget.'”

 

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.