Last presidential cycle, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was adored by the conservative movement.
This presidential cycle, many members of that same conservative contingent claim the 2012 GOP vice-presidential candidate is now a card-carrying member of The Establishment. In headlines, conservative websites like the Drudge Report and Breitbart often link Ryan to President Obama.
So Ryan, keenly aware of how destructive it is in GOP circles right now to be labeled as such, is trying to turn the tables with a message that is arguably his most direct attempt yet to disarm what he calls "the circular firing squad of the conservative movement" pointing their weapons at him: Put down your arms, conservatives. I'm one of you. And my ascension to speaker is proof that you've won.
Here's what Ryan said in an interview published Friday with the Blaze:
I think that the fact that I, who was a pariah to the establishment, am now considered the establishment tells me that conservatives have basically taken over. And when I was in the wilderness fighting earmarks and fighting for budget reform, we were the pariahs. Now we are in leadership roles.
So I feel like we have come a long way and we have shifted the center of gravity in the Republican Party far to the right of where it was just four years ago. And so I see this criticism in a weird way as a sign of success.
What Ryan's trying to do here is simple yet incredibly difficult. He wants to stop his party's pitchfork rebellion in its tracks — preferably before its leaders, GOP front-runner Donald Trump and/or Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), get a firm hold on the GOP nomination. Ryan has not commented publicly on Trump's candidacy, except to rebuke Trump for his proposal to ban Muslim immigrants and to say that any of the GOP candidates for president would be better than Obama.
Whether he's aiming these comments at someone specific or not, Ryan is trying to morph anger into constructiveness. He thinks one of the ways to do that is to try to change the way conservatives see him. Ryan, after all, has been pitching himself lately as the anti-Trump.
We'd take issue with some of Ryan's framing here, though. Ryan has certainly been a thought leader in conservative circles, but he's been no "pariah" of the establishment. Unlike someone like Trump, Ryan has spent the past 17 years in Congress playing by the rules to try to change the game, introducing right-of-center budgets and tax policies as chair of powerful committees.
Still, the fact he's using such strong rhetoric now — "pariah" and "wilderness"— highlights just how badly he wants to make the point that he is one and the same with today's most conservative members.
But that's going to be difficult for two reasons. First, we've argued that the conservative movement in its current form is wary of anyone in power, no matter their conservative bona fides. When Ryan ascended to the speakership this fall, some conservatives turned on him, even though his positions— besides supporting comprehensive immigration reform — arguably haven't changed from the days when he was being celebrated as a bold, conservative pick for Mitt Romney's vice president.
Now as he enters his fourth month as speaker, that dynamic hasn't changed much. Sure, Ryan has tried hard not to alienate conservative members of the House, many of whom are giving him the benefit of the doubt for now. He's opened up leadership positions to some of them. He got some of them to vote in December for a spending bill, or at least not to complain too loudly about it. He's contrasted himself with his toxic predecessor as House speaker, John Boehner (R-Ohio), at every turn.
But it's unclear whether after all that careful maneuvering, he's actually won any conservative members over. Has he persuaded any of them to put down their arms and work with him?
Second, Ryan may not think he's part of the establishment, but he's one of the most prominent voices of an institution that many Republicans regard as the epitome of the establishment. Since July, Republicans have actually given the GOP-controlled Congress lower approval ratings than Democrats and independents, according to a November Gallup poll. That poll was taken before Ryan had a chance to make his mark as the House's newest leader, but it still underscores just how much of a trust deficit Ryan has to climb out of in order for his "put down your arms" message to resonate.
As the first votes in this tumultuous, outsider-driven presidential race are about to be cast, Ryan is doing what he can to try to unify his party. But if the entire Republican Party establishment hasn't been able to stop the rise of candidates like Trump, we're doubtful if Ryan can either.