Speaking at an event hosted by the conservative Heritage Action, House Speaker Paul Ryan urged conservatives to unite around a “bold, pro-growth agenda” but to be realistic in what the party can achieve while President Barack Obama remains in office.
Ryan believes that Republicans can capture the White House in 2016 if they are “inclusive” and “inspirational” and warned that personality-driven intraparty fighting would damage the GOP’s aspirations for the highest office.
“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,” Ryan told the Heritage Action Conservative Policy Summit on Wednesday morning.
“And that’s what House Republicans are going to do. We win when we have an ideas contest. We lose when we have a personality contest,” Ryan continued. “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.”
“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 can’t fall into the progressives’ trap of acting like angry reactionaries,” says @SpeakerRyan.
Indeed, Ryan, continuing his determined outreach effort to conservative groups, promised that House Republicans would lead the charge this year to present alternative ideas to the American public on issues such as health care, welfare, entitlements, and taxes.
But he warned that conservatives should be wary of playing into what he sees as the White House’s strategy to define Republicans as an “opposition party.”
“This president is struggling to remain relevant in an election year when he’s not on the ballot,” Ryan said. “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.”
“Don’t take the bait,” Ryan continued. “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.”
Before the House can propose big reforms this year, Ryan has used the beginning part of his speakership to show what Republicans are not for.
House Republicans failed Tuesday to override a veto from Obama striking down a bill that repealed key provisions of his signature health care law, Obamacare.
While Ryan said he was proud to finally get a repeal bill to Obama’s desk, he says the end result shows the limits of what Republicans can accomplish with a Democratic president. Ryan believes that conservatives need to be more transparent about what they can and cannot do.
“We have to be straight with each other, and more importantly, we have to be straight with the American people,” Ryan said. “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, 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,” Ryan continued. “We can’t do that anymore.”
“I don’t want to set us up for failure. I want to set us up for success.”
Ryan already faces an immediate challenge in uniting the party: the budget.
Ryan has promised to bring the House back to “regular order” this year, when it attempts to pass 12 individual spending bills rather than combining the measures into a giant package called an omnibus, as Congress has been doing lately. Ryan said Wednesday he hopes to get the appropriations bills done by July to avoid the last-second shutdown threat that normally leads to an omnibus.
The mission is easier said than done.
Conservatives and some rank-and-file Republicans are signaling they won’t support the spending plan if it is consistent with an agreement GOP leaders reached with Obama and Democrats last year as part of the omnibus budget deal.
The two-year agreement, negotiated by former House Speaker John Boehner, raises the 2017 budget caps by $30 billion. Ryan is concerned about rising deficits, too, he said.
He argues that the best way to control the debt is not through the appropriations process, but through reforming entitlement programs.
“I believe we are one presidency away from losing control of the situation,” Ryan said in response to a question from a member of the audience. “If a progressive gets the White House, then we won’t have the kind of entitlement reform we need to get our debt under control and to get our budget balanced. If we don’t fix our entitlement programs, which are the real drivers of our debt, then we will have a real crisis on our hands. We can fix our budget mess on our own terms in a smart, reform-based, prospective way.”
It’s all part of Ryan’s message to focus on long-lasting big ideas and not to get caught up in self-inflicted feuds in the short-term.
It’s something Ryan is willing to risk it all for, he said.
“I’m fine with losing my seat in 2018 if I’ve done what’s good and right for America,” Ryan said. “This is the attitude we need to have.”
Update: In a panel later Wednesday, Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, pushed back against Ryan’s comments. “I understand what Paul is saying, or trying to say, but let’s look at the reality.”
“You have the Republican Party on one hand saying be realistic, which I think we should be, but don’t engage in fights that you can’t win. The Democratic Party, on the other hand, is telling their voters that ‘we’re going to do the things that you want us to do.’”
“Our leadership is telling us to be realistic and it’s through realism that we’re going to win national elections,” Labrador added. “Well, guess what, we were realistic in 2012 and with all due respect, not only did we lose the presidency, we lost the Senate.” More details in The Daily Signal’s Natalie Johnson’s report here.