Politics & Policy

Ryan Hopes for Big Reforms, but GOP Nominee May Have Other Ideas

(Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

Early last week at the Historic Inns of Annapolis, Speaker Paul Ryan stood before a scattering of House Republican leaders — the Elected Leadership Council, or ELC — to kick off the two-day retreat that lays the groundwork for the chamber’s legislative agenda each year. The lights in the opulent Governor Calvert ballroom were dim as Ryan welcomed members, his face lit by the blue glow of the PowerPoint behind him.

The retreat began much as it had in years past, with members exchanging post-holiday greetings, trading banter on 75-degree Christmases, before taking their seats. But for the first time in years, the man in charge came armed with proposals beyond the usual reservoir of appropriations bills. He came intent on setting the stage for the “bold conservative agenda” he has promised by outlining some of the key components of his vision: welfare reform, tax reform, and an alternative to Obamacare.

In the coming year, Ryan and his Republican conference will have a chance to lay out a comprehensive conservative agenda for the first time in decades. It’s what the new speaker has worked toward for 17 long years in the House, and he’s intent on ensuring that neither Donald Trump nor Ted Cruz derails it now.

Ryan has seen firsthand the political pitfalls of an “opposition-party” brand — from Mitt Romney’s attempts to pitch himself as the anti-Obama to John Boehner’s monomaniacal focus on stymieing White House–backed legislation — and he has urged Republicans to offer a positive alternative. But though he has pledged to do so now that he holds the reins, it’s tough to ignore the sinking feeling that Ryan’s efforts will be undermined once more, this time by a Republican nominee with a vision radically different from his own.

The speaker knows that most of the sweeping reforms he desires won’t reach the House floor for the remainder of the term. And that’s fine with Ryan: He and other “reformicons” have long said that legislation need not be signed into law in order to be an effective weapon in the larger war of ideas. But even from a messaging perspective, Ryan faces a steep uphill battle in making his proposals heard.

Some have compared his forthcoming agenda to Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, a detailed set of conservative policies that guided the 104th Congress. But while Gingrich unveiled his contract in a non-election year, with a firm grip on the party’s microphone, Ryan has no such luxury. As the specter of a Trump or Cruz nomination looms, the speaker risks having his agenda drowned out by a nominee who will inevitably become the mouthpiece of the party, with grand priorities of his own to sell.

Ryan has been coy about pointing fingers in public, preferring instead to chastise “some on the right” for playing “identity politics,” but his hostility toward Cruz and Trump has become an open secret.

“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. “People are afraid to name names, but that’s the reality of it.”

‘Let’s be frank about it: Paul does not want Donald Trump or Ted Cruz speaking for the party,’ says one Republican leadership source.

And multiple party-leadership sources say that Ryan’s decision to lay down a legislative gauntlet, to be fleshed out this week at the conference-wide retreat in Baltimore, stems as much from a need to act swiftly on his promises as it does from a desire to establish a contrast between the House’s brand of conservatism and that of Trump and Cruz. 

Ryan has said that party unity is essential for avoiding a rewrite of 2012, and he has all but named Trump and Cruz as the source of the party’s fissures. But by unveiling a policy platform in advance of the nomination, the new speaker risks coming under fire for the same charge, as he’s subverting the typical practice of letting the nominee’s agenda take precedence.  

 “The speaker had to weigh the pros and cons of two different strategies,” says Indiana representative Luke Messer, the Republican Policy Committee chairman who attended the ELC retreat last week. “Be cautious about the agenda because some candidates might disagree with it, or be bold and clear and do our best to shape the agenda of our candidate.”

“The speaker decided to be bold and clear.”

According to Gingrich, Ryan’s strategy will give him leverage by forcing the GOP nominee to make a choice: barrel forward with his or her own policy platform, or compromise and collaborate to present a unified front at the party convention in July.

“The question is: Does the nominee want to be part of the team? And do they want to go to convention with a whole new set of ideas?” Gingrich says.

He believes even Trump will want to play nice with Ryan’s House, so long as the speaker makes good on his end of the bargain. “If the House comes up with five to seven bills that are popular and make sense, you’ll see a real interest in whoever our nominee is in taking advantage of that,” he says. “If Ryan’s ideas are sound, there’s no way Trump won’t be fascinated by them.”

Gingrich’s optimism aside, the foundation for an easy collaboration between Ryan and Trump or Cruz looks shaky, partly because the two front-runners — who were conspicuously absent from the poverty summit the speaker hosted with Senator Tim Scott and six other GOP presidential hopefuls in Columbia, S.C., on Saturday — have generated considerable sympathy among many vocal members of Ryan’s conference.

House Freedom Caucus leaders Jim Jordan, Mark Meadows, and Mick Mulvaney warn that problems could arise from a House agenda at odds with Trump’s own policy proposals.

In a joint interview with National Review, House Freedom Caucus (HFC) leaders Jim Jordan, Mark Meadows, and Mick Mulvaney warn that problems could arise from a House agenda at odds with Trump’s own policy proposals. They commend the real-estate mogul for “articulating a message . . . that Washington, D.C., is broken.”

“If we ignore that, that’s going to be bad for the party,” Meadows says.

“Marginaliz[ing] Trump, ignor[ing] the Trump message, that’s what’s going to be dangerous. . . . We have to allow sentiment that would be embodied by Mr. Trump’s success today to filter up through the party,” says Jordan. House leadership “cannot beat it down [or] . . . you’ll end up with a full-scale revolution.”

Although they are not openly supporting Trump’s candidacy, the three leaders of the Freedom Caucus, which effectively ousted Boehner in October, are sympathetic to the populist tenor of his candidacy. Their members are even more enthusiastic about Cruz, who has won the lion’s share of the group’s endorsements, creating a bloc of support that could prove difficult to navigate should the speaker and the eventual nominee reach an impasse.

HFC member Mo Brooks is a part of that bloc, and he says he plans to use Cruz’s agenda of “simplification of the tax code,” “border security,” and “strong national defense” as a metric for the soundness of the forthcoming House plan.

“Ted Cruz is the candidate that’s putting forth the bold conservative agenda so far,” the Alabama congressman says. “Whether Paul Ryan can match it, that remains to be seen.”

Such a dynamic — Ryan competing with a Republican presidential nominee for the heart of the party and the favor of his conference — could spell a resurgence of the civil strife that has wracked the party in the past few years and that the new speaker has so far made strides in quieting.

“Is this a political tremor where we’ll see an earthquake down the road? We’re looking at a situation where the vast majority of elected GOP officials are different from the presidential front-runners in a way we haven’t seen before,” says Mike Franc, former policy director for Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. “It’s a shifting of sands that’s going to put stresses and strains on the movement going forward.”

But it is also true that House Republicans have sought a conservative path forward on big-ticket items for some time now. And with the speaker committed to clearing such a path in Baltimore this week, the conference is, by and large, standing behind him, something that may prove too difficult for the eventual nominee — whoever he is — to ignore.

“Trump has shown a willingness to borrow ideas from others and call them his own,” Messer, the Indiana congressman, says. “If he’s the nominee, I can only hope that he’ll borrow ours too.”

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

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