House Speaker Paul Ryan spoke today to the Heritage Action Conservative Policy Summit to lay out his vision for the GOP in 2016. Let me translate his remarks for you, starting after his standard thematic intro about being "a Jack Kemp, Ronald Reagan conservative."
“Let’s cut to the chase: There are a lot of people hurting in America right now. They don’t think the promise of this country is real for them. The American Idea—that the condition of your birth, it does not determine the outcome of your life—a lot of people don’t think that’s true anymore. And if the American Idea is not true for everybody, then it is not true at all.
“And we just can’t accept that. It goes against everything this country stands for. We are the conservative party. We want to conserve this country’s promise. And so we care about opportunity. We want every person in this country to find the American dream. That is our mission.
This is a nod to voter dissatisfaction, but if it sounds to you a lot more like Marco Rubio's stump speech than the way Donald Trump frames the same concept, that's not an accident. More on that later.
“So the question we face in 2016 is simple: Do we want more of the same? Do we want the liberal progressives to lock in all their gains? Or are we, the other party—the conservative party—going to get the country back on the right track? And how do we do that?
“To quote William Wallace in Braveheart, we have to unite the clans.
“We have to unite conservatives around a bold, pro-growth agenda that will get America back on track—and then take our agenda to the people. We have to take our founding principles—freedom, liberty, free enterprise, self-determination, government by consent—apply them to the problems of the day, and come up with real solutions that will build a confident America. If we don’t think the country’s headed in the right direction—and we don’t—then we have an obligation to give the people of this nation a choice for a better way forward. And that’s what House Republicans are going to do.
This is an even more direct appeal to the same thing Rubio keeps talking about - party unity that brings together the establishment and anti-establishment, the moderates and the conservatives so that everybody gets something. Whether you think that is a good thing, a bad thing or an end state we can't afford to accept until we've done a lot more housecleaning is debatable, but Ryan has been working hard at mending fences and getting buy-in from the various factions in his caucus. But is it feasible in 2016, with Obama still in the White House and Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid still running the Senate?
“My theory of the case is this: We win when we have an ideas contest. We lose when we have a personality contest. We can’t fall into the progressives’ trap of acting like angry reactionaries. The Left would love nothing more than for a fragmented conservative movement to stand in a circular firing squad, so the progressives can win by default.
“This president is struggling to remain relevant in an election year when he’s not on the ballot. He is going to do all he can to elect another progressive by distracting the American people. So he’s going to try to get us talking about guns or some other hot-button issue and not about his failures on ISIS or the economy or national security. He’s going to try to knock us off our game. We have to understand his distractions for what they are. Otherwise, we’re going to have a distraction this week, next week, and the week after that. And that’s going to be the Obama playbook all year long.
“And so what I want to say to you today is this: Don’t take the bait.
What Ryan is identifying here is the Obama White House's theory of "stray voltage" or, more properly, trolling: getting Republicans to overreact to something Obama has done solely for provocative purposes. It's a tactic Obama has used a lot lately, and frankly I blame the rise of Donald Trump in large part on Obama's deliberate use of unilateral executive orders to inflame tensions over immigration. Obama would like nothing more than to keep on pushing buttons that produce Trump headlines and Trump support. Just today, he visited a mosque, provoking a comment from Trump that "maybe he feels comfortable there. We have a lot of problems in this country. We have a lot of places he can go and he chose a mosque."
Presidents used to use their last year in office mostly to withdraw from domestic policy battles and focus on foreign affairs or fixing relatively unglamorous problems, or perhaps stumping for their successors. I can't think of a time in our history when a Speaker of the House would have felt compelled to give a speech warning that the President was trolling and should be ignored by serious people so they could focus on the issues.
“Don’t fight over tactics. And don’t impugn people’s motives. It’s fine if you disagree. And there’s a lot that’s rotten in Washington. There’s no doubt about that. But we can’t let how you vote on an amendment to an appropriations bill define what it means to be a conservative. Because, it’s setting our sights too low. Frankly, that’s letting the president define us. That’s what he wants us to do. That’s defining ourselves as an opposition party, instead of a proposition party.
This frankly sounds to me like a shot across the bow at Heritage Action, Ted Cruz and a lot of the other people on the Right (this website included) who have tried to hold the Congressional GOP accountable for the maneuvering that goes into Failure Theater, and at Cruz's blasts at the motives of the "Washington Cartel." Ryan does have a point - if the party is unified behind a goal and moving towards it, we shouldn't broil people over this or that individual vote. But of course, the whole reason for the broiling is that a lot of people don't currently trust that the leadership is behind the goals it professes or is actually making any progress in that direction.
“So we have to be straight with each other, and more importantly, we have to be straight with the American people. We can’t promise that we can repeal Obamacare when a guy with the last name Obama is president. All that does is set us up for failure . . . and disappointment . . . and recriminations.
“When voices in the conservative movement demand things that they know we can’t achieve with a Democrat in the White House, all that does is depress our base and in turn help Democrats stay in the White House. We can’t do that anymore.
Again, Ryan recognizes the problem of Failure Theater, but seems intent on blaming only one side of the coin (people who over-promise things that are not feasible) and not the other (people who fail to accomplish what is, and in some cases choose tactics designed to fail rather than pull out all the procedural stops to play to win).
“I don’t want to set us up for failure. I want to set us up for success. That’s something we all can work on—together. And the way to do that is to unify around a vision. We need to define the horizon we’re aiming for. And then we need to bring the rest of the country with us.
“That’s why I’m really heartened by what you’re doing today. You’ve put out your plan to get America back on track. Now we’re putting together our own. And today we’re going to share ideas and flesh out our vision. If we keep this up, I think there will be no question that in 2016 the Republican party will be the party of ideas. As you know, we’re already at work on our agenda. It has five parts: national security; jobs and economic growth; health care; poverty and opportunity. . . .
Ryan is - I think honestly - trying to find a way out of this dynamic, and that's one reason he was so desperate to just put the last omnibus behind him even at the cost of swallowing a lot of bad Boehner-negotiated deals. It's quite arguable that he should have realized at the time that at least a brief shutdown fight was needed to show the conservative base that he wasn't just going to roll over, but...well, he was just going to roll over.
The proof of the wisdom of moving on to a new and less ambitious 2016 agenda will be in the pudding.
“And finally, the last piece of this agenda—and it is so critical to all the others—is restoring the Constitution. The president's executive overreach has undermined the Constitution and damaged the people’s trust. What needs to be done to restore the separation of powers and protect our constitutional liberties? What good is enacting all these great conservative policies if another charismatic progressive can talk his or her way into the White House again and undo it all with a pen and a phone?
This is a fine goal, but one that the House has yet to find a way to do anything about other than filing lawsuits that delegate the dirty work to the courts.
“So, those are our five points. We’re saying, here is what we will do if you, the men and women of America, give us a Republican president we can work with to do this. And we’re ready to work with everyone at Heritage Action as we put together that agenda.
“We want your ideas and your input. As far as I’m concerned, if you have ideas, we’re all ears.
Ryan has worked hard at building trust inside the Beltway to show that he really does listen. It's going to take a while and some visible progress before he convinces anyone outside the Beltway that this is an actual change.
“Because the way I see it, that’s how we turn the country around. In the late 1970s, Jack Kemp and House conservatives put out a plan to cut taxes and restore America to her greatness. It was bold and aspirational. It was so compelling that Ronald Reagan ran on those ideas in 1980.
“And what happened? Reagan ran the tables. The Republican party won a mandate from the people, and the rest, as they say, is history. And Mandate for Leadership was a cornerstone of that moment.
“Well, that is exactly what we need to do today. And the stakes are even higher. So we need to be inspirational. We need to be inclusive. We need to show how our principles and policies are universal and how they apply to everybody. We know that the economy is weak. We know that the world is on fire. We know that the future is uncertain. There’s a lot of frustration and anger out there. And is it justified? It sure is.
“But we should not follow the Democrats and play identity politics. Let's talk to people in ways that unite us and that are unique to America's founding. That’s what I think people are hungry for. And that really is the essence of the Republican party—or, more importantly, the essence of the conservative movement. And that is our mission for the next six months.
“All told, I am excited. I am optimistic. Why? Because the Left is intellectually exhausted. Their ideas have failed. And we are just getting started. We have all the makings for a mandate from the people to save the American Idea. Now let’s go get it.”
This closing feels like a veiled shot at Trump, wrapped in an acknowledgement of the anger underlying Trumpism. Ryan has insisted that he will stay neutral in the Presidential primaries, but it doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to tell that his message, worldview and management style are all very similar to Rubio's and at odds with the tactical and rhetorical approaches of Cruz, let alone Trump.
Of course, if Ryan wants to help a candidate who thinks the same way, he will need to show that his 2016 legislative agenda is capable of delivering some results. Ryan's skill as a communicator of conservative ideas and his short tenure in office gives him some rope to work with, but patience will run short.
In the meantime, he's trying to keep his caucus from feeding the troll.