‘We can fix these problems,” Paul Ryan tells me. He’s referring to the sluggish economy, the rising cost of living, broken immigration and health-care systems, burdensome regulations, and stifling tax code. What would it take? The Republican party has to win the Senate in 2014 and the White House in 2016.
Easier said than done. Especially when conservatives face an enemy inside their own party: the GOP consultant class.
“Everyone calls it ‘the Establishment,’” Ryan says. “That’s a loose word.” What he has in mind are Republican ad makers, lobbyists, public-relations guys, media consultants, speechwriters, pollsters, retired officials, and fundraisers — the hundreds of thousands of Washington operatives who make a living from center-right politics.
Affluent, secure, beholden to the bipartisan conventional wisdom that avoids social issues and ideological fights, they are alienated from and hostile to the conservative base that keeps the GOP in business. These are the real takers (a term Ryan now abjures).
“The consultant class always says play it safe, choose a risk-averse strategy,” Ryan says. “I don’t think we have the luxury of doing that. We need to treat people like adults by offering them alternatives.”
Only by forcing voters to choose, he says, can you “win the kind of mandate you need to fix the country’s problems.” The alternatives are drift, aimlessness, inertia, and hoping that liberals will somehow doom themselves.
Fat chance. Presidential politics do not favor a GOP that has lost the popular vote in five of the last six elections. Ryan points to other obstacles, such as the rising share of minority voters and the Electoral College “Blue Wall.” His conclusion: “We’re in a tough place.”
Ryan is promoting his new book, The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea. Part memoir, part policy brief, it is a revealing and thoughtful account of his ascent in the Republican ranks, from intern to congressional staffer to protégé of Jack Kemp and Bill Bennett to congressman to vice-presidential nominee. It also shows just how difficult it can be for a politician to ignore the consultant class.
Take Ryan’s experience with the Romney campaign, which awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonuses to staff, and millions to outside vendors, despite losing the election. Sometime in late 2011, Ryan writes, “someone from Mitt Romney’s team gave an interview and explained that they saw the election as being overwhelmingly about Obama’s economic record.”
Ryan was concerned. He called Boston. “‘Look,’ I said, ‘I have to tell you that when you say things like that it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard to conservatives. This guy’” — he’s talking about President Obama — “‘is good. He’s gifted. We’re not going to beat him like that.’”
The response? “It was fairly silent on the other end.”
By the time Romney won the nomination, Ryan says, the former Massachusetts governor had broadened his argument. And by picking Ryan as his running mate, Romney made the election not only about the economy but also about entitlement spending.
The Left pounced, denouncing the ticket for leaving seniors in the cold. Ryan held town-hall meetings across the country, explaining his plan for Medicare. He appeared in Florida alongside his mom. It seemed to work: Republicans won seniors (and white Millennials).
But the moment when Ryan defined the terms of the election was short lived. The campaign’s emphasis returned to the jobless recovery even as the Obama team pummeled Romney on social issues and national security. The election was called for Obama before the eleven o’clock news.
It is not only presidential candidates who are captured by members of the consultant class. They run Congress, too — at least when Ted Cruz is looking the other way.
In his book, for example, Ryan defends his 2003 vote for the Medicare prescription-drug benefit and his 2008 vote for money for Detroit. “I just know that in Congress, you have to do the best thing under the circumstances you’re in and then be willing to take the heat,” he writes.
If you can make things better and move the outcome toward conservative principles, then you must have the courage and the wisdom to say yes. You’ve got to be willing to take criticism — even from your friends — and trust that the people will understand that governing requires trade-offs.
Responsible, prudent, and adult, but also not much different than the message of the GOP leadership and consultant class. Nor does Ryan’s position on immigration distinguish him: He is a longstanding supporter of so-called comprehensive reform.
Ryan downplays the GOP rift over immigration. “There is much less daylight between Republicans on this issue than people would like to acknowledge,” he says.
President Obama is responsible for the division and bad feelings. “I think the president’s poisoned the well,” he goes on. “The border issue and the lack of follow-through and work on the part of the Senate has made it impossible to do anything on immigration.”
“Everybody’s a border hawk,” Ryan says. “Everybody, including myself, has a border-first approach because of ISIL and the cartels. Most Republicans want to reconstitute legal immigration so it’s not based on chain migration, but on the economic needs of the country.”
I ask Ryan if GOP candidates are seizing the initiative rather than waiting for Obama’s unpopularity to carry them into office. He says it is difficult to run full-spectrum, ideological campaigns during off years: “Presidential elections are the best platforms to offer a proactive agenda.”
“The Left is intellectually exhausted,” he says. “Progressivism in practice looks horrible. People see it.” Desperate to retain the Senate, Democratic incumbents are using “slash-and-burn tactics” against Republican challengers. And the challengers are on the defensive. “They’re reacting.”
Ryan’s advice: “See it through and don’t be intimidated. It’s liberating to offer ideas and be yourself. You’ll always be advised not to do such things. But, if you lose, at least you’ll lose in a dignified way. And in my experience, you usually won’t lose.”
It’s not the 2014 election that keeps Ryan up at night, though. What keeps him up is “the real and lasting damage that is being done to our national defense and foreign policy.”
I tell Ryan that when I heard Vice President Biden say he’ll follow the Islamic State to “the gates of Hell,” I was reminded of the 2012 vice-presidential debate, when Biden blustered and postured his way to a stalemate. Biden is all talk and no action.
“All talk and no action, but even the talk is bad,” Ryan says. “They don’t have a policy. ‘Don’t do stupid stuff.’ That basically is their policy, which is no policy.”
When Ryan visited Korea, Japan, and China in April, every official had questions for him. They were not asking about the pivot to Asia. “They were asking me about Ukraine and Syria. They were basically asking, where is America? What are you doing? How can we trust you in the future?”
The American economy can bounce back quickly. It’s happened in the past: after the Depression of 1920, after the Second World War, after the 1970s stagflation. Rebuilding deterrence, however, is another matter. “It’s the trajectory of foreign policy that will take a long time to unwind even if we get the right leadership in place,” Ryan says.
How to start? “Don’t savage Defense. Play the superpower role that we have traditionally played responsibly, and lead. And that’s just not what we’re getting. The president doesn’t have the ideological disposition for it. He doesn’t have the personality for it.”
The question on everyone’s mind is whether Ryan will run for president. It doesn’t seem to be on his mind. He says he will decide in 2015. I don’t think he’s in a rush. The gavel at Ways and Means beckons.
It helps to have run at the presidential level before. But the record of losing vice-presidential nominees is not inspiring. Lieberman ran in 2004 and lost. Edwards ran in 2008 and lost. Palin did not run in 2012. Grown men practically begged Ryan to run that year. He declined.
“The only way we beat an Obama third term is to offer a spirited alternative and bring it up to a crescendo where we’re really giving the country a very clear choice of policies and ideas,” Ryan tells me. He might not be the person making the offer in 2016. But he’ll be responsible for the fine print.
— Matthew Continetti is the editor-in-chief of the Washington Free Beacon, where this column first appeared. © 2014 All rights reserved