BALTIMORE — All Republican eyes will be on South Carolina Thursday evening, where their presidential candidates will gather for the latest debate. But the more momentous GOP gathering may be here, 500 miles north in a waterfront hotel, where lawmakers will start plowing their own distinct path through this unpredictable year.
Those are the marching orders of Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who has used his 11 weeks as House speaker to clarify that he and the Republicans he leads won’t be wilting in the shadows as the presidential race dominates 2016.
Quite the opposite: With the race for the nomination deeply unsettled, Ryan has moved to claim a central role in shaping the 2016 Republican agenda and promoting a high-minded vision for his party — one that is now threatened by the populist bombast of Donald Trump and other presidential candidates.
“The kind of role I envision … is to help push ideas and policies, and help make us a party of ideas and make the campaign about a better way forward instead of personalities,” Ryan said in a recent interview.
The 2012 vice presidential nominee is now vowing to turn the House into a election-year think tank, telling reporters this week’s retreat would be “the beginnings of the conversation of assembling an agenda to take to the country.”
Ryan has used just about every venue available to float his agenda — from the usual newspaper op-eds and a beefy schedule of television appearances to a Library of Congress address and a campaign forum on poverty that drew six of the GOP presidential hopefuls to South Carolina last week.
For a self-styled “ideas man,” the ideas the new speaker has promoted since claiming the speakership have tended toward the general than the specific — including tax, health care, and welfare reform — all issues he had previously pursued in his former role as Ways and Means chairman.
He pitched the need to address those topics Wednesday night in a closed-door speech to the roughly 200 House members and senators gathered here for the retreat. And by several accounts, he won an ovation that is not typical for such an occasion.
“It was by far the best political speech by a member of the House or the Senate that I’ve ever seen” at a party retreat, said Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who said that the support Ryan enjoys inside the halls of the Capitol gives him the credibility to wade into the presidential race. “The presidential candidates have to listen to a figure like Paul because … he’s a generational figure that doesn’t come around very often in this country.”
Visionary is not a typical role for a House speaker, who tends to be a creature of the institution rather than the political moment. But this isn’t just any moment, said Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute and a Ryan confidant.
“He understands that he has a moment where people are going to be paying attention, and he needs to use the moment, and that’s what really good leaders always do: They pay attention to the timing and they exploit it,” Brooks said.
Ryan has so far taken a surgical approach to counter the populism spilling forth from the presidential race.
For instance, after the November terrorist attacks in Paris, he resisted the outcry from some conservatives to pass legislation restricting the ability of Muslim refugees to enter the country. The refugee bill that came to the floor made no mention of religion and managed to win dozens of Democratic votes.
Ryan was more blunt when Trump announced last month he supported a temporary ban on allowing Muslims to enter the country. “This is not conservatism,” he said in one of the most forceful denunciations from a GOP leader.
When South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley used her State of the Union response on Tuesday to counsel Americans to resist the urge “to follow the siren call of the angriest voices,” she was doing so at Ryan’s invitation.
And in an interview that aired Sunday on CBS, Ryan restated his repudiation of his once-frequent practice of dividing the country into “makers” and “takers” — a habit that haunted his 2012 stint as VP nominee. “I was wrong,” he said. “Let’s not have populism that’s unattached from our principles.
If there is a thread tying Ryan’s vision for the party together, it’s his embrace of “the American idea” — a notion borrowed from the late congressman and Housing Secretary Jack Kemp, a Ryan mentor who made his own bold attempts to shape his party’s national agenda, including pushing for a major income tax cut throughout the 1980 presidential race.
“The American idea is this most beautiful idea,” Ryan told a crowd of hundreds at the Kemp Foundation poverty forum Saturday in Columbia, S.C. “The condition of your birth does not determine the outcome of your life.”
The mere focus on the issue of poverty is enough to distinguish Ryan’s agenda from the presidential field. But so is his willingness to delve into detail. At various points during the forum, Ryan quoted Alexis de Tocqueville, lectured the presidential candidates on the brilliance of the Earned Income Tax Credit, and defended the wisdom of converting federal entitlement programs into block grants to states.
But to a crowd of likely Republican voters in an early-primary states, those were not applause lines. They cheered instead at Ben Carson’s insistence that even the poorest Americans ought to pay federal income tax and at Marco Rubio’s retort to a series of immigration protesters.
It is, simply put, not at all clear this is the moment for Ryan’s agenda. And it is just as clear that Ryan, the reluctant speaker, will push forward anyway.
“He doesn’t have an expectation that it’s going to fire up the base, because it’s not going to fire up the base,” Brooks said. “You fire up people … by talking about their dignity and potential, and Paul is doing that, and when he has their attention he says, ‘And, oh, by the way I have a plan on how we can do it.’ He doesn’t expect that to be an applause line.”
In an interview, Ryan declined to pass judgment on the mood of the electorate or the state of the presidential race. But he suggested that he is more focused on the battle of ideas with Democrats than the current internecine warfare.
“Primaries have a tendency of doing this,” he said. “And it’s not until the general election where you get the general election topics. What I want to do is make [poverty] such an important topic that it’s something that we discuss in the primary as well. I want this to be front and center and a cornerstone of conservatism in the Republican Party, and I think we’re doing that.”
Besides influencing the presidential campaign, there is also an unmistakable element of self-preservation to the Ryan’s efforts — which are shared with other GOP leaders on Capitol Hill — to develop his own agenda.
“We can’t control what presidential candidates are going to say or going to do,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the Senate Republican Conference chairman, told reporters Wednesday. “The only thing we can do is control what we do here … and what we want to do is make sure that all House members and senators are well positioned going into this election year, can talk about a positive agenda for the future of this country, and talk about a record of accomplishment and run their own campaigns. … At some point, when we have a nominee, we’ll be able to sync up with them and their agenda.”
However, the degree that the Donald Trump agenda, most notable, might be compatible with the Paul Ryan agenda is deeply in question.
Trump, so far, has mostly ignored Ryan. In a rare mention at a rally in Massachusetts earlier this month, Trump lambasted the spending deal Ryan finalized with Democrats last month: “Everything that you don’t want is in that budget,” he said. “And I say where was Paul Ryan? Where are all of these people that are supposed to be representing our interests? Where were they?”
But Ryan got a better review last week from another anti-establishment candidate: “I’m optimistic that his principles are solid conservative principles,” Carson said. “Looking at his life, I think he is in the political arena for the right reason. I think he actually cares about this nation and about the people.”
Asked about Ryan’s role in the presidential race, Carson said, “He has a role as speaker of the House, and if he does that job very well, it’s going to help us all.”