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Paul Ryan's Speech: Ideas Worth Listening To?

While everyone’s attention has understandably been riveted on the drama unfolding in the caucus and primary races to select the next presidential candidate and leader of the Republican Party, it is worthwhile to spare a thought for the current party leadership. What effort is being made to lay the groundwork for the Republican agenda, which will, it is hoped, be pursued moving forward from January 2017?

When one party holds the presidency and another has control of the House of Representatives, the leader of the opposition party is traditionally the speaker of the House. In this case, that is Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan.

Ryan has recently been taking a lot of heat from the conservative commentariat, particularly the broadcast variety on AM radio, for his alleged betrayal of conservative causes. This is part and parcel of the unhinged anger which has come to characterize our national politics over the past year, and which has been the major contributing factor to the rise of Donald Trump. It is very much worth reflecting on the thoughtful warning contained in a speech Ryan delivered on February 3 to the Heritage Action Conservative Policy Summit. I will quote extensively from the speech, and intersperse my thoughts.

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.

Here, Ryan acknowledges that there is a lot of justification for voter dissatisfaction with the way in which the country is headed, and notes also the frustration many feel that the present, Republican-controlled legislature has been unable to put the brakes on many of the things being done by the present administration.

How do we correct the situation? Ryan continues:

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.

In other words, it’s time — and long past time — to disband the circular firing squad.

It’s time for us to stop allowing disagreements about tactics (legitimate though they are) to degenerate into name-calling fests — “RINO” and “sell-out” being two of the more printable epithets which have been hurled — over disagreements concerning single votes on complex pieces of legislation, because such tactics play directly into the hands of the opposition. As Ryan says:

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.

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.


We are the party of ideas; the cult of personality belongs to the other crowd. Right at the moment, Senator Sanders is surging among the Democrats, and especially among the younger demographics on their side, precisely because of the gross ignorance among so many of the consequences of his ideas. They sound pretty, and they sounded pretty in a world of tumultuous change and catastrophic warfare a hundred years ago, too. Many tens of millions of corpses later, people of my generation learned painfully what those ideas cost, and how futile they ultimately were. But the nightmare world they created ended, for the most part, 25 years ago, and its vestiges in dark places like North Korea and Cuba are either too remote (not to say surreal) and ignored, or are the subject of romantic fiction on the Left, romantic fiction being gobbled up in huge helpings at universities which are more and more just echo chambers of Leftist indoctrination.

So we need to engage the electorate in the realm of new ideas to deal with the very real and pressing challenges the country faces, not tired slogans and bromides, whether they are proposed by septuagenarian socialist fossils like Sanders or creatures of the East Coast echo chambers like Trump. This is what Ryan proposes:

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.

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. … 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.

In other words, we have to recognize that a lot of extravagant over-promising in 2014 has set us up for the disappointment and rage of 2015 and 2016. We need to become realistic about what can be accomplished, and learn to pick our battles in the months ahead; we cannot allow the ideal to be the enemy of the good, because people who demand all or nothing at all usually get the latter. Both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have noted that the positive thing about executive overreach is that it can also be undone by sweeping executive order — but then the hard work begins. Then we have to begin to pass legislation, and that’s a messy process, no matter who controls the legislature.

The Left is intellectually bankrupt; all that they have is emotion and the cult of personality. If we can unite, and run on ideas, we can win, and turn the country around.