Paul Ryan is worried about the upcoming presidential election. In 2012, Mitt Romney emerged from a protracted Republican primary contest wounded, and despite the party’s efforts to reform the process — compressing the calendar, reducing the number of debates, and moving up the nominating convention — Ryan has a sinking sense of déjà vu.
“Mitt didn’t get his general-election campaign up and running until late summer,” says Ryan, who became speaker of the house in late October, just over three years after he was announced as Romney’s 2012 running mate. “It’s too late by then. . . . I see a repeat if we don’t get it right.”
Ryan says he will do his part by acting as a shadow nominee, putting forward a broad-based policy platform that the Republican nominee can adopt after emerging from the scrum. In the meantime, he says, “Those of us who have nothing to do with the presidential election need to fill the gap by having ideas, by having a platform, by having an agenda,” so that the party’s nominee “isn’t scrambling to catch up” once the general election kicks off.
Ryan hopes to use the absence of a nominee to put his own stamp on the conservative movement, to drive it away from the intra-party bickering that has consumed it for the past six years and toward a policy consensus that includes simplifying the tax code, fixing entitlement programs, and reforming the country’s criminal-justice system.
Though Ryan has been a central figure in the GOP’s policy battles over the past decade, he doesn’t look at this agenda as his, per se, and he’s working to get the whole party — Republicans in the House and Senate, governors, and outside conservative groups — behind it. The goal, he says, is “to get us together collectively, the conservative movement pushing an agenda.”
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Over breakfast last week, the new speaker discussed that agenda with Jim DeMint, the president of the Heritage Foundation and the man who was once the Senate’s chief conservative disruptor.
“If we continue a circular firing squad through 2016, we guarantee the Left wins by default, plain and simple. So we as a conservative movement better unify and go on offense and go start winning converts,” he says. “The last thing we should do is carve up the conservative movement and get us pointing our guns at each other.”
‘If we continue a circular firing squad through 2016, we guarantee the Left wins by default, plain and simple.’
DeMint, of course, pioneered the art of intra-Republican warfare, founding the Senate Conservatives Fund to bankroll primary challenges against sitting lawmakers. If Ryan can get him on board, that will certainly be a mark of progress. The signs are auspicious: The day that Ryan delivered remarks outlining his vision for a conservative agenda, Mike Needham, the DeMint protégé who runs the Heritage Foundation’s political arm and has spent much of the past six years antagonizing House leadership, issued praise for Ryan’s “bold agenda.”
The tea-party movement shifted the national political narrative from Republicans versus Democrats to Washington elites versus everyone else. In the resulting environment, several of the current Republican candidates — particularly Donald Trump and Ted Cruz — have been effective in elevating their own profiles by attacking fellow Republicans.
And that’s another of Ryan’s worries, though he avoids using labels or naming names.
#share#“I have concerns, whoever the nominee is: If it’s only about that person’s personal profile and personality, we lose,” he says. “It shouldn’t be about personalities. Personalities come and personalities go and personalities, when it comes to Republicans, don’t win elections. I think what wins elections are ideas and principles and solutions.”
But even Ryan admits that personality matters, and that Romney’s woodenness cost Republicans the election. “We won the issues; we lost the personality,” he says.
‘I think what wins elections are ideas and principles and solutions.’
And since Ryan’s election as speaker, he’s made an effort to sell himself as the friendly face of the House GOP. He has appeared on 60 Minutes and done dozens of national television interviews. He has thrown a holiday party for members of the Congressional Black Caucus. He has broken bread with Nancy Pelosi. And these gestures have all found their way into the public domain.
On the other hand, big personalities such as Trump and Cruz would argue that their popularity owes to their willingness to take principled stands. And there is no doubt that many Republican voters are angry with the way their leaders in Washington have handled the issue of immigration, and that that anger has helped propel Trump and Cruz to the top of the polls.
Where does that fit into Ryan’s policy platform? He persuaded a supermajority of members in the conservative House Freedom Caucus to support his bid for speaker by pledging not to push comprehensive immigration reform, which he supports, for the remainder of the Obama presidency. Will his posture change if the country elects a Republican in 2016?
“On big, signature issues like this, I think you need to make sure that we have a majority of our majority,” he says. “That’s how I would approach such an issue going forward.”
Ryan waded into another immigration battle last week when he denounced Donald Trump’s over-the-top call to bar Muslims from entering the country. He tells me that Muslim immigration doesn’t pose a problem to the U.S. in and of itself, though terrorists do. A focus group conducted by the Republican pollster Frank Luntz last week suggested that the swift condemnation Trump’s proposal has earned from all sides is only strengthening his supporters’ resolve. So is everybody merely taking Trump’s bait? Ryan doesn’t think so. He accuses Trump and others of “taking the bait and going after First Amendment principles.”
Originally elected to Congress at the age of 28, Ryan has long grappled with how to square conservative ideas with practical politics. His experience on the 2012 campaign trail deepened his conviction that it is imperative to persuade new voters to join the cause. “The 2012 experience seared into my mind the fact that we have to win converts to conservatism if we’re going to save the country,” he says.
He admits he’s enjoying the job of speaker, which puts him in a better position than he expected to target constituencies beyond the party’s base. “I’m excited about going into ’16 and going on offense,” he says.
Though he hopes to quell the internecine warfare that has plagued Republicans for much of the Obama years, it’s clear that Ryan’s version of going on offense will also include pushing back at the internal forces he considers a threat to the party’s future.
— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review.