Heritage Action, which inveighed against former House speaker John Boehner, pushed for the shutdown and perfected the art of demonizing anyone who did not adopt its (losing) tactics, has always said it wanted a conservative agenda. To its credit, it recently has turned to policy development. Now House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is taking Heritage Action at its word. He ventured over to its offices today with an olive branch in hand.
He praised Heritage Action’s turn toward constructive endeavors: “I’m really heartened by what you’re doing today. You’ve put out your plan to get America back on track. Now we’re putting together our own. And today we’re going to share ideas and flesh out our vision.”
He told the group that “the question we face in 2016 is simple: Do we want more of the same? Do we want the liberal progressives to lock in all their gains? Or are we, the other party — the conservative party — going to get the country back on the right track? And how do we do that? To quote William Wallace in ‘Braveheart,’ ‘we have to unite the clans.’ ” He reiterated his plan for 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.
So Heritage Action wanted an agenda, and here is someone who is going to give the group one. That came with some brotherly-type advice that the president will try to stir the pot and create dissension in GOP ranks. “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,” he said. “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.” That is also a clear invitation for the group to depart from the “purity” wars — if it is sincere about advancing conservative causes, that is. Even more directly, he advised the audience:
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.
In essence, Ryan is offering a deal: Heritage Action stops eviscerating fellow Republicans, and he will push for a lot of things all conservatives want. I have my doubts as to whether groups that learned to raise money and garner attention by throwing spears at other Republicans and spewing inflammatory rhetoric can abandon that for the hard, incremental work of legislating. But if they do, Ryan can be applauded as a peacemaker. If they do not give up their bully-boy ways, then Ryan cannot be accused of ignoring them or treating them with disrespect.
It is hard to ignore the contrast with Donald Trump’s approach to politics. Without mentioning him — or his imitator, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) — Ryan wrapped up on an upbeat note: “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.” He concluded, “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.”
This was vintage Ryan: sunny, wonky and willing to believe the best about others until proven wrong. If his demeanor and style catch on, the GOP may find its way back from the dysfunction and internecine warfare that characterized the past couple of years — provided that GOP primary voters don’t select someone divisive, dismissive of ideas and adept at playing to people’s fears and anger.