Paul Ryan planted seeds for a pragmatist streak last year

December 12, 2013

It might surprise some to see Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin at the center of a bipartisan budget deal that's been pilloried by conservative groups and figures. Ryan, after all, is the Republican who has authored fiscal blueprints that have been celebrated by the political right and lambasted with equal intensity by the left.

Actually, it's not all that surprising. Just glance back at what Ryan was saying at this point last year.


(J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

In his first extended speech after losing the 2012 election as Mitt Romney's running mate, Ryan told a ballroom full of conservatives in Washington that it was important for Republicans to come to terms with the hand they were dealt. It was a stroke of practicality coming off a painful defeat for the GOP.

"At a time of great consequence, the American people have again chosen divided government. And it’s up to us to make this divided government work," Ryan said at a dinner hosted by the Jack Kemp Foundation, named after his mentor. "We’ve got to set aside partisan considerations in favor of one overriding concern: How do we work together to repair the economy, to get people back on their feet?"

Ryan's message that evening in early December was: 1) Despite their best efforts, Republicans would not control all levers of government in 2013 and 2014 and 2) That didn't mean they shouldn't try to work within those limits.

Looking back at the year that was, it's clear that a competing approach emerged in the GOP. The we're-not-going-to-budge-an-inch posture adopted by Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and his cohort during the government shutdown showdown laid bare the alternative strategy.

But Ryan, even as he's built his reputation as a strict fiscal conservative, seemed throughout the year to have his eye on something other than just a fight. He made that even clearer at the outset of the budget talks this fall with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) when he mentioned the value of finding limited common ground informed by previous failed budget talks.

"I saw those earlier episodes, these grand-bargain pursuits, as ultimately destined for failure because it required one of the parties in power to compromise core principles, and I just didn’t see that happening," he said in October. "That’s why it’s more appropriate to the moment we have to focus on common ground . . . to get some minimal accomplishments."

Ryan's been talked about as a potential presidential contender, or perhaps a future House speaker. And there's no doubt that his stock among conservatives on both fronts will drop to some extent as a result of the deal he just made with Murray.

But he seems okay with that -- much in the way New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) has been okay this year doubling down on his own argument in favor of getting things done even if it means working with the opposing party. Neither Christie nor Ryan, to hear them tell it, have surrendered their core principles in the process.

It's not clear what the future holds for Ryan. But what is clear is that he's adopted an approach to governance rooted in results. And that places him closer to Christie on the spectrum of the potential 2016 GOP presidential sweepstakes than to Cruz or Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.).

"Look, in divided government you don’t get all the things you want," Ryan told "CBS This Morning" on Thursday.

That's the way he's seen it for some time, now.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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