According to Boehner’s advisers, the speaker appreciates Ryan’s willingness to be a conduit between the leadership and the House GOP’s many blocs. Conservatives, for their part, appreciate Ryan’s willingness to push for conservative policy when he’s meeting with Boehner.
“I’ve known the speaker for a long time. We’re both midwestern guys, and I went to college in his district,” Ryan says. “We’ve always gotten along. But we’re also of different generations. We have different styles. But we do understand each other quite well, and we listen to each other.”
Ryan says his close relationship with Boehner is, more than anything, about his desire for Republican unity in a period of Democratic control. “Forget the palace intrigue,” Ryan says, when I press him for more details about their friendship. “I’m looking to build a unified conference and a coherent strategy, even if they inevitably require varying tactics.”
In the coming weeks, Ryan will begin to hold “listening sessions” for House Republicans as he prepares to unveil his budget. This time, he says, the budget will balance the federal books in a decade. A group of House conservatives pitched that idea to Ryan, who then sold it to Boehner.
Initially, sources say, a handful of Republicans were hesitant to embrace that framework, since a ten-year balanced budget will surely include some controversial entitlement reforms. But due to Ryan’s blessing, and his ability to get conservatives to cooperate, it quickly became policy.
Reflecting on that ten-year pledge, Ryan says it’s indicative of how the early budget talks among Republicans have gone well. “We don’t have a baseline yet, but I think we can do it,” he says. “Republicans are demoralized, but we will chart a reasonable path to prevent a debt crisis.”
“Look, we haven’t disintegrated into a circular firing squad,” Ryan chuckles. “Of course, that’s exactly what the president wants, so we have to be careful and keep talking to each other. That’s going to be critical, and we’re developing a core of the conference that wants to work together.”
Beyond discussing policy with conservative House leaders, such as Tom Price of Georgia and Jim Jordan of Ohio, Ryan continues to reach out to outside scholars, such as Yuval Levin and former education secretary Bill Bennett, who have been casually advising the congressman for years.
Moving forward, “Republicans have to leverage our majority to get spending reforms and entitlement reforms, but we have to do it right,” Ryan says. “We have to propose very specific alternatives to President Obama’s second-term policies. We have to counter his agenda.”
And any success, Ryan adds, will depend on prudence. “I believe conservatives are maturing,” he says. “We’re figuring out how to fight intelligently for what we believe in to make a difference for people. It’s not going to be easy, but there is a sincere effort to find a way back.”
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.