On Wednesday, Paul Ryan gave a fascinating speech at Heritage Action, a tea party-allied organization that has fashioned itself as the guardian of conservative purity. The speech called for unity. “To quote William Wallace in Braveheart,” Ryan said, “we have to unite the clans.”
But his speech was actually a repudiation of everything the tea party has done. Not only that, Ryan also took shots at the congressional Republican leadership, and even the current GOP presidential candidates. The House speaker didn’t call anyone out by name, but if you understand what’s happening now and the conflict that has roiled the Republican Party for the last seven years, the critique was hard to miss.
Not surprisingly, for much of the speech he blamed conservatives’ own sins on progressives, Democrats and Barack Obama. That has become a familiar refrain — It’s their fault that we’ve become such monsters!
But when you say that, you’re still acknowledging that the sins exist.
Let’s start here: “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.”
Yes, the party of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, cares not for “personality.” And nobody “trapped” Republicans into “acting like angry reactionaries.” They did that all on their own.
But it’s interesting that Ryan cites guns as a distracting hot-button issue that is important only because Obama is forcing conservatives to talk about it against their will.
Last time I checked, lots of Republicans thought the gun issue is absolutely vital to maintaining liberty. The same is true of any other hot-button issue you could name, whether it’s abortion or same-sex marriage or something else: the issue might or might not be advantageous to Democrats, but it’s also very important to at least a significant chunk of the Republican electorate. It’s hard to tell where Ryan draws the line between real issues and distractions, but every time you define an issue as the latter, you’re telling some major Republican constituency to shut its mouth.
This is perhaps the most critical part of Ryan’s speech:
“And so what I want to say to you today is this: Don’t take the bait. 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.
“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, the idea that Obama somehow baited Republicans into fighting amongst themselves for the last seven years is laughable, but look at all the things Ryan is criticizing here.
First: “Don’t fight over tactics.”
That’s just about all Republicans have been fighting about for years. The substantive differences within the party are often minor, and what tends to differentiate a tea partier from an accommodationist squish is just that, tactics. The tea partier and the squish both want to repeal Obamacare; the only difference between them is that the tea partier thinks shutting down the government is an appropriate tactic to make it happen. They both want to reduce the size of government, but the tea partier thinks forcing the U.S. to default on its debts is a good tactic to bring that about. They both want to defund Planned Parenthood; the only difference is whether they think it’s a fight worth having right now.
Ryan also says: “We can’t let how you vote on an amendment to an appropriations bill define what it means to be a conservative.” This, too, is a direct shot at the tea party. The argument iit has made over and over is that things like how you vote on an amendment do indeed define what it means to be a conservative. Since ideological differences within the party have been reduced almost to nothing, those kinds of decisions are what supposedly separate the believers from the apostates.
Did you vote against Obamacare 50 or only 49 times? Did you knuckle under and vote to keep the government open? Have you opposed “amnesty” 100 percent of the time, or only for the last few years? These are the distinctions that have defined the tea party’s conception of conservatism.
And perhaps most shockingly, Ryan says: “We can’t promise that we can repeal Obamacare when a guy with the last name Obama is president. ... 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.”
This is the very heart of the battle that has consumed the party and fed the rebellion playing out in the presidential race. Republican base voters are fed up with a congressional leadership that told them that if those voters helped take back the House and then the Senate, that they’d stop Barack Obama in his tracks — but then failed to deliver.
Ryan is correctly arguing that it was stupid to make promises that couldn’t possibly be kept, but he’s arguing that it was making the promise that was the problem, while tea partiers and the base still believe it was the not keeping the promise that was the far greater sin.
They see Mitch McConnell and Ryan’s predecessor John Boehner as feckless and weak, lacking the courage to stand up to Obama. In their view, McConnell and Boehner are contemptible not because they lied to them about what could be achieved but because they didn’t achieve the impossible.
Near the end of the speech, Ryan gives an implicit critique of his party’s presidential candidates: “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.”
In case you didn’t notice, GOP presidential candidates are also playing identity politics right now. The front-runner has proposed banning Muslims from the U.S. and building a wall across our southern border, called Mexican immigrants rapists and drug dealers, and questioned one of his opponents’ standing as an American. Another candidate said no Muslim should be elected president. The party establishment’s golden boy could barely open his mouth in the last couple of weeks without invoking Jesus (though maybe now that Iowa is behind him, that will change).
Identity politics has been central to Republican campaigns for the White House for the last half century. If you had to come up with two words to describe the current GOP presidential campaign, “inspirational” and “inclusive” would be pretty far down the list.
So in this speech, Ryan has essentially repudiated the entire last seven years of Republican politics, up to and including what’s happening right now.
Which is nice to hear.
But if you think it’ll change the minds of those who have been engaged in these fights, I’ve got an Obamacare repeal to sell you.
Paul Waldman is a senior writer at The American Prospect. This column was first published in The Washington Post.