Politics & Policy

What’s Driving Conservative Opposition to Paul Ryan

(Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

It was beginning to look as though Republicans had fashioned a semblance of unity in the House. They would rally around Paul Ryan, urging him to step up and fill the void left when Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy dropped out of the race for the speaker’s gavel.

It didn’t last long. The tide has shifted this week, with many grassroots conservatives saying Ryan won’t do. The man who was once the party’s fresh-faced vice-presidential nominee, lauded for his aggressive calls to overhaul Medicare and Medicaid and portrayed by Democrats as the arch-conservative villain who would toss Granny off a cliff, now finds himself the latest target of some of conservative media’s biggest stars.

That’s mostly a result of Ryan’s support for comprehensive immigration reform, perhaps the one position most guaranteed to breed distrust and ill will among much of today’s conservative base. With such animosity suddenly bubbling to the surface, some of the same people who rallied around Ryan during the 2012 presidential race are now working to thwart his bid for House speaker before it’s even begun. It’s a testament both to the outsize role the issue of immigration has taken on within the Republican party and to the ever-widening chasm between the grassroots and establishment.

RELATED: Conservative Activists Target Paul Ryan

Radio hosts Mark Levin, Laura Ingraham, and Fox News’s Sean Hannity are among those speaking out against a prospective Ryan speakership. Levin issued a warning on Twitter the moment House Republicans began floating Ryan’s name last Thursday: “NOT SO FAST!” he wrote. “Ryan [is] an amnesty advocate.” Ingraham, an outspoken opponent of comprehensive immigration reform, situated him alongside other establishment picks: “They tried Eric Cantor,” who also earned the ire of conservatives for his views on immigration. “They tried McCarthy. The only ‘Young Gun’ left is Ryan,” she wrote on Twitter. Hannity urged the rebels in the conservative House Freedom Caucus to “work to get somebody that will fight the fight that you are looking to engage in.”

The political landscape has changed a great deal since three years ago, when some of these same figures were lauding Romney’s selection of Ryan as his running mate. Reacting to Ryan’s nomination on her radio show, Ingraham called it “the best news that we’ve received in this campaign.” She said that when she found out, “I literally thought that I was dreaming.”

EDITORIAL: Paul Ryan Should Run

Levin told WMAL that Ryan was an excellent choice, calling him “articulate, confident, principled, and knowledgeable.” Their comments seemed to affirm Nate Silver’s statistical-historical analysis that “Mr. Ryan is the most conservative Republican member of Congress to be picked for the vice-presidential slot since at least 1900.”

#share#At the time, some noted that Ryan had once been in favor of guest-worker programs, including one that would have provided a path to a green card for some illegal immigrants. But in the years preceding the election, he’d toughened his anti-amnesty stance enough to placate wary conservatives. “In this past Congress, he’s been a good deal better on immigration,” said prominent immigration critic (and frequent NR contributor) Mark Krikorian in August 2012. “I’m reasonably encouraged by his evolution.”

RELATED: Would a Speaker Ryan Push Through Amnesty?

But five months after the election, the controversial “Gang of Eight” immigration-reform bill passed the Senate, and Ryan threw himself into persuading his colleagues to take up their own version in the House. Though he had cosponsored a handful of bills to grant amnesty to illegal aliens in particular sectors, his support for the ultimately doomed Gang of Eight effort was far more high-profile. He privately tried to rally support for debate on the bill and mediate a compromise between its supporters and its opponents. He publicly urged his colleagues not to abandon the prospect of a “grand bargain” on immigration. And he toured alongside Democratic congressman Luis Gutierrez, perhaps the most prominent voice in support of liberalized immigration policies, to tout the idea of such a bargain.

Some of the same people who rallied around Ryan during the 2012 presidential race are now working to thwart his bid for House speaker before it’s even begun.

To be sure, there are other reasons for conservative discontent: Ryan’s support for Trade-Promotion Authority and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the far Right has painted as an executive power grab; his collaboration with Democratic senator Patty Murray on a federal budget compromise; and his reported unwillingness to grant the House Freedom Caucus the procedural concessions it is demanding.

But it was Ryan’s defection on immigration, it seems, that first signaled to some conservatives that he may not be one of them. Ryan holds a D-minus rating with NumbersUSA, a non-partisan organization that seeks to reduce immigration back to what it calls “traditional levels.” Ryan is “unacceptable,” says the organization’s president, Roy Beck. “He combines a sentimentalist view of immigration that’s not practical, and he represents the immigration policies of crony capitalists. To put somebody as speaker who is so tied to this image is detrimental to the GOP. They need to try to be a party that wage-earning Americans believe in.”

RELATED: OK, Let’s Fight: The Free-for-All Over Choosing a New House Speaker Isn’t Chaos; It’s Democracy

Beck adds that he finds it “weird” that conservatives are only just now taking notice of Ryan’s immigration record. “We did not extol him as a vice-presidential nominee.”

There are those who see the opposition to Ryan as a bad sign for the GOP. Steve Schmidt, who ran John McCain’s 2008 campaign, says it’s indicative of the “acute dysfunction of the Republican party.”

#related#“When you look at a decaying institution, the first sign of demise is the imposition of purity tests,” he says. Immigration, he adds, is the test of the moment.

“Paul Ryan is an unimpeachable, intellectually serious conservative,” Schmidt says. “The fact that he’s now a RINO says something very disturbing about the state of the GOP.”

Disturbing or not, the forceful pushback against Ryan makes clear that the strong sentiments stirred up during the immigration fights of the past decade have staying power, and should Ryan run, he’ll have to reckon with them. For someone already disinclined to seek what is widely considered to be a thankless job, it might not be worth the fight.

— Elaina Plott is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.

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