Ron DeSantis Versus Paul Ryan: The Ultimate Winner Is Not the One Saying Abandon the Culture War

AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

In the past few weeks, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former House Speaker Paul Ryan have given competing visions for the future of the Republican Party. My money is on DeSantis winning this round, given the hard left turn the Democrats have made on cultural and social issues. Ryan is cautioning the party to shy away from those fights and focus on the economy. It’s almost as if he still doesn’t understand why Trump won.

Speaking at the Reagan Library in a series called “A Time for Choosing,” Ryan proclaimed:

“If the conservative cause depends on the populist appeal of one personality, or of second-rate imitations, then we’re not going anywhere.”

“Voters looking for Republican leaders want to see independence and mettle,” Ryan noted. “We win majorities by directing our loyalty and respect to voters, and by staying faithful to the conservative principles that unite us.”

Yes, he said that out loud. After chastising Trump voters, he leaped straight into effusive praise for President Ronald Reagan, a singular personality himself. He was also president beginning 40 years ago, and while he was the perfect man for that point in history, if you can’t draw a parallel between Reagan policy and Trump policy, you are just in denial.

Both men focused on getting the government out of the way of business. They cut taxes and slashed regulation. Neither man was shy about naming our enemies, and they both favored peace through strength. Reagan used humor to mock his political adversaries, and Trump used direct hits. If you prefer one style over the other, fine. But missing the common threads is just obtuse.

The only significant achievement of Ryan’s entire career was the Trump tax cuts. Even he admits it:

“These historic reforms were a triumph of practical conservative policy, a model of the shared prosperity and upward mobility we have always talked about. It was the populism of President Trump in action, tethered to conservative principles.”

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The key phrase is “talked about.” Republicans also talked about repealing Obamacare, defunding Planned Parenthood, securing the border, and dozens of other policies they never addressed while in office. Republican voters absolutely wanted independence, mettle, and respect. They found all three in President Trump, who delivered on more of his election promises than any president in my lifetime. That is why he did what no Republican has done since Reagan. He added nearly 12 million voters to the coalition during his reelection and earned a share of minority voters not seen since 1960. The party also won unexpected seats at the local and state levels and in the House of Representatives.

Ryan’s naivete on the culture wars is also startling. He told the audience:

“As the left gets more ‘woke,’ the rest of America is getting weary.  This stuff is exhausting.  And we conservatives have to be careful not to get caught up in every little cultural battle,” Ryan said. “Sometimes these skirmishes are just creations of outrage peddlers, detached from reality and not worth anybody’s time.  They draw attention away from the far more important case we must make to the American people.”

I completely agree with Ryan that the Left’s ideas are often detached from reality. Yet, public schools teach radical gender ideology to children as young as four. So-called conservatives are afraid to sign legislation preventing what amounts to medical experimentation on children in service of that extreme ideology. Safe spaces for women are disappearing, and there are a startling number of teen girls opting to take male hormones in a medical system that is forced to affirm their self-diagnosis.

In North Georgia, I attend parent activist meetings to combat critical theories in the classroom. There I hear horror stories from mothers whose teen daughters have been taught that anal sex is a form of birth control and a way to maintain their virginity. Then I am shown classroom materials that teach racial essentialism and resentment. The lessons assign roles in society and motivations to children based on collective identity, which violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and sometimes requires compelled speech in violation of the First Amendment.

These ideas that are “not worth anybody’s time” are imposed on our children. Teaching activism rather than skills and critical thinking results in what we see in Portland. Drag queen story hour is not “a blessing of liberty,” as David French asserted. It is the sexualization of children that has made its way into the popular children’s show Blue’s Clues and toys like LEGOs because Republicans were asleep at the wheel. No more. Republican leaders need to speak clearly and boldly on these issues at all levels of government.

Emerging national leader Ron DeSantis understands this. Oddly, he was not invited to speak at the series. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was invited, along with Former Vice President Mike Pence, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, former UN Ambassador Nikki Hayley, and Senators Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). They were all part of the line-up.

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You could assume that DeSantis is one of the “second-rate imitations” Ryan took a swipe at. Nothing could be further from the truth. As I wrote after his CPAC speech, DeSantis has internalized the Trump agenda and put his own spin on it. He speaks authentically and accessibly about issues that matter. DeSantis also has a direct and fact-based manner of dealing with intense media scrutiny. The legacy media and Democrats know exactly who to be concerned about. They are giving DeSantis plenty of opportunities to show his mettle and passion for serving the best interests of the Floridians that elected him.

Additionally, he knows the culture wars are worth his time. In an interview with The Federalist, which could be perceived as a shot back at Ryan, he said:

“As much as I’m a fiscal conservative, some of these battles with what the left is doing are effectively cultural Marxism,” DeSantis said. “You can have, theoretically, a successful economy, but if the underpinnings of the culture are just being torn apart, I don’t think that’s a society that’s going to be very successful over the long term.”

Fact check: true. DeSantis added:

“If all you’re doing is, the Democrats propose $2 trillion in infrastructure [legislation], so we say we’ll do $1.5 trillion, that’s not going to animate anybody,” he told The Federalist. “That’s just Me Too Republicanism and ultimately that’s not going to be successful.”

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This battle for the path forward will weave through the 2022 mid-terms and the 2024 Republican primary. My money is on the DeSantis path for electoral success. Or, as I like to call it, the whole package.