Updated 10:40 a.m.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan made his latest attempt Wednesday to keep the Republican Party united amid a fractious presidential nominating contest, calling on conservatives to be “inspirational” and “inclusive” in a keynote speech delivered to this year’s Heritage Action Policy Summit.
“To quote William Wallace in “Braveheart,” we have to unite the clans,” Ryan said.
The speech hit many of the same themes that Ryan has repeatedly sought to emphasize — the need for Republicans to rally around a positive vision, the pursuit of a “confident America,” and the twin imperatives of being both realistic and visionary.
But Wednesday’s speech was notable both for its audience — the annual Heritage summit, which helps set the tone for conservative policymaking on Capitol Hill — and for Ryan’s call to end the GOP infighting that made 2015 a treacherous year for Republican lawmakers, including former speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).
Ryan on Wednesday implored conservatives not to “take the bait” offered by President Obama and other Democrats, who he said would be intent on exploiting the GOP’s divisions in an election year.
“Let’s not fight over tactics. Don’t impugn people’s motives,” Ryan said. “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 still our president. All that does is, it sets us up for failure and disappointment and recriminations.”
He continued: “When voices in the conservative movement demand things that they know that we can’t achieve with a Democrat in the White House all it does is depress our base and, in turn, help Democrats stay in the White House. We can’t do that anymore. It won’t work.”
Those words were both a subtle rebuke to Boehner and other Republican leaders — not to mention Heritage itself — who raised expectations, especially during the 2014 campaign cycle, for the ability of a GOP-controlled Congress to reverse the Democratic policy gains made under Obama. But they were also a plea for understanding and cooperation from Ryan, who is faced with managing the same internal divisions as Boehner did before his October resignation.
Ryan won an important vote of confidence in his introduction from Heritage Action chief executive Michael Needham, who described how his group had presented the prior congressional leadership with a list of policy ideas that could unite Republicans. Instead, he said, “those congressional leaders were satisfied fighting to preserve the status quo and to avoid rocking the boat.”
But Needham made clear that he and the band of activists he leads view Ryan — a former conservative think-tanker himself — in a wholly different light. “Today we have the opportunity to turn over a new leaf,” he said. “I cannot think of a better man to start off the day. He has shown the power that one man committed to ideas can have.”
Besides imploring conservatives to stay united in 2016, Ryan reiterated his call for conservatives to reject anger as an animating principle, which has helped Ryan emerge as a counter to the populism seen on the presidential campaign trail.
In a interview last week with The Blaze, Ryan gave his most explicit repudiation yet of the rhetoric embraced most prominently by Donald Trump: “Anger is not a plan. Anger is not a principle. Anger is not enough.”
On Wednesday, Ryan made a similar point to a room full of Washington’s conservative policy elite. “We know the economy is weak. We know that the world is on fire. We know that our future is uncertain. We really, genuinely worry about our children and our grandchildren. … There’s a lot of frustration and anger out there. And is it justified? Yeah, you bet it is. It sure is justified,” he said.
“But we should not follow the Democrats and play identity politics,” he continued. “Let’s talk to people in ways that unite us, that are unique to America’s founding. That’s what I think people are hungry for. And that reality is the essence of the Republican Party — or, more importantly, that reality is the essence of the conservative movement.”