Postmodern Conservative

House Speaker Paul Ryan is the Wrong Answer to the Wrong Question

The movement among House Republicans to get Paul Ryan to become the next Republican Speaker would waste Paul Ryan’s considerable talents without solving any of the House Republican Conference’s problems.

Ryan’s greatest advantage over his colleagues is that he is a specialist rather than a generalist. He knows more about the details of the budget and the impact of health care policy than any other House Republican. He was able to shift the whole Republican Party to supporting premium support Medicare and – what is more impressive – continued to refine his Medicare reform plans in response to constructive criticism.

Some years ago, I was watching an interview with Paul Ryan and he said that one of the best pieces of advice he got was from liberal Democrat Barney Frank. Frank told Ryan to be a mile deep and not a mile wide. Making Ryan Speaker would force him to go from being a mile deep on issues where he is the Republican Party’s best representative, to being a mile wide on issues where he isn’t much better than your average GOP congressman.

And for what? Ryan would have enormous trouble unifying the House Republican Conference because of his position on immigration. It isn’t necessary for a Republican Speaker to share the opinion of the modal Republican on every issue, but immigration has become the proxy issue for all that separates Republican elites from the majority of Republican voters. Ryan’s support for upfront amnesty makes it difficult for him to heal that breach.

We need some mutual respect here. Ryan is a conviction politician and we should respect him enough to trust that he would not adopt a new set of immigration principles just so he can prosper as Speaker. Republican leaders should also have enough respect for their own voters to know that they Ryan brand won’t lull Republican voters into forgetting about the fissures within the center-right coalition.

I was listening to the local talk radio station and the callers were talking about how we needed a “real conservative” as Speaker, and how they were disappointed that Ryan had turned out to be a RINO. Those callers were wrong on both counts. Ryan is a real conservative – of a kind. The Paul Ryan who came up with the Ryan budget and premium support Medicare was always the same Paul Ryan who supported upfront amnesty and increased low-skill immigration. That is just the kind of conservative he is.

The conservative callers were also wrong to assume that we needed a “real conservative” (meaning a conservative who agreed with them on everything.). We need a genuinely transactional Republican Speaker and Republican establishment. The Republican Conference needs a Speaker who won’t act as the agent of the business lobbies and the Washington lobbyist class, but who will treat those Republican factions as… factions who can’t get everything they want.

Kevin McCarthy couldn’t do that. Every time he talked about “building trust” on immigration policy, I heard someone buying time until he could come up with the next hustle to get upfront amnesty and increased low-skill immigration through Congress, and to Obama’s desk. I don’t think I was the only one.

That lack of trust is what did McCarthy did in. Even his Benghazi gaffe was an errant attempt to build trust with populist conservatives who didn’t think he had their interests at heart. McCarthy figured that abominating Hillary Clinton was something that he and populist conservatives could agree upon.

A transactional Republican Speaker would be able to say something like this to the business lobbies:

You are an important element of our party and – more than that – you are mostly admirable individuals, but there are some things you cannot get from us. It is the same with every part of our coalition.

The pro-lifers can’t get banning abortion in those cases where the mother’s life is in danger. Constitutionalists can’t roll back public policy to 1928, and we can’t help you with upfront amnesty and increasing low-skill immigration. Trying to help you on those issues is tearing the party apart.

We can still work together on issues like taxes, spending, regulation, and trade. If you are serious about helping people “in the shadows” we are even willing to help you with an amnesty – but only after the implementation of universal employment verification and a visa tracking system. If you help us with the latter, we will then work with you on the former. But you can’t have upfront amnesty and increased low-skill immigration. If you want to be part of this coalition, this is where you have to give. 

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