New York Times
By Jennifer Steinhauer
December 12, 2015
Concerned about the harshly negative presidential campaign dominated by Donald J. Trump, the nation’s highest-ranking Republican says Congress must confront polarizing populism by promoting an “inclusive” policy-focused agenda to counter any personality-driven run sure to cost his party the White House.
That Republican, Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, said he felt professionally obligated to support whoever wins the party’s presidential nomination next year. Yet he said he believed that congressional Republicans must set a policy agenda that offered a clear contrast to the angry insurgent refrain blasting into the winter primaries.
“If we try to play our own version of identity politics and try to fuel ourselves based on darker emotions, that’s not productive,” Mr. Ryan said in a wide-ranging interview on Friday. “I don’t think it will be successful, and I don’t think it is the right thing to do. I believe in an agenda that’s inspirational, that’s inclusive, that’s optimistic.”
Mr. Ryan, the Republican nominee for vice president in 2012, added his powerful voice to a growing line of leaders of his party’s establishment sounding an alarm about the tenor of the race just weeks before the first votes are cast in the nominating contests.
“This isn’t about Trump,” Mr. Ryan said. “This is about do we run on substance or do we run on personality? If we run on personality, we lose those elections.”
Mr. Ryan, drafted by his party for his current job and popular across a wide spectrum of his fractured party, clearly intends to have a voice in the nominating process, which he said could drag into the summer.
“I will use this bully pulpit as effectively as I can,” Mr. Ryan said. “For now, it’s the bully pulpit we have.”
Mr. Ryan said the divisions between an exclusionary strain of hard-right conservatism and one focused on broad-based economic growth were neither new nor insurmountable, recalling his work as a young aide to his mentor, Representative Jack Kemp of New York.
“I remember working for Jack fighting the Buchanan wing of the party on similar issues,” Mr. Ryan said. He was referring to Mr. Kemp’s efforts to combat Patrick J. Buchanan’s campaign for president in 1992, which was rooted in a fight over America’s “culture wars” and anti-immigration sensibilities.
“These are not new discussions,” Mr. Ryan said. “These are not new frictions.
“I come from the pro-growth wing of the Republican movement,” he continued. “I believe in an aspirational type of conservative that should prevail for lots of reasons, for moral reasons and because I think it’s more successful. This is another chapter in that long evolving story.”
The move to insert himself — and his Republican colleagues — into the presidential campaign is an abrupt detour from the road taken by his immediate predecessor, John A. Boehner, who stayed largely out of the 2012 campaign and had limited contact with the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney. It also sets him apart from Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, who tends to focus on internal congressional business.
Mr. Ryan, who as speaker will also serve as chairman of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland this summer, said he would strongly support any Republican nominee. Still, he said, “I am going to speak my mind.”
He wants to begin now, he said, because “what I realized was that in 2012, by the time we got to that conversation it was already too late.”
“The narratives of these campaigns start earlier, and the trajectory of these campaigns get fixed into place,” he added.
Members of Congress have tried to drive the agenda before with mixed results. But Mr. Ryan pointed to 1980, when Mr. Kemp put forward a tax reform plan that Ronald Reagan embraced and voters supported.
In contrast, Newt Gingrich believed he could seize the agenda from President Bill Clinton when Mr. Gingrich was installed as speaker in 1995, only to conclude that the president’s megaphone drowned out the speaker’s.
However, Mr. Gingrich said Mr. Ryan was “exactly right” to be pursuing an agenda against the backdrop of this campaign.
“I think an inclusive, optimistic, solutions-oriented party is very important, and it’s really hard for candidates to do that at this stage,” Mr. Gingrich said. “Having the youngest speaker since 1869 puts a fresh face on it all.”
Mr. Ryan, 45, has built credibility since he became speaker in October with bipartisan legislation on education, highway funding and a budget agreement.
But he acknowledged that a presidential campaign year was unlikely to yield major legislation, and said he would instead use it to frame the choice between the parties.
“We’re not going to solve these big problems with this president in the next year,” he said. “I don’t see the parties close together on these issues. I see the need to offer a bold alternative” to eight years of the Obama administration’s agenda.
“To me it isn’t ‘Let’s split the difference on these issues,’ because our differences are so far apart,” Mr. Ryan said. “It’s ‘Let’s give an alternative agenda and bring it to the country and let the country decide.’ ”
Mr. Ryan’s conservative fiscal ideas, like moving to privatize Medicare, became a target for Democrats in 2012. But, he said, it beats slogans like the “hope and change” of Mr. Obama’s campaign in 2008.
“We don’t want us to have an election like that where we run on platitudes, then all the sudden we pop this agenda after the election,” Mr. Ryan said.
Mr. McConnell, noting that numerous Republican senators are up for re-election in swing states, said the House was “uniquely suited” for articulating a broader message. “I like the fact that the speaker is going to use the House as sounding board for new ideas,” he said in a telephone interview.
He added: “There is not much we can do here in Congress to affect the election. I am going to stay out of it and try and keep my eye on making as much difference as I can here in the Senate.”
Mr. Ryan began thinking about a policy agenda late in the summer, when the match was lit on Mr. Trump’s ascent.
Long before he even considered becoming speaker, he began to think of how to promote a conservative message, and to encourage his party to put forward detailed policy ideas on improving the economy and combating the Islamic State.
He gave a speech this month at the Library of Congress to lay out the challenge to his party, and said Republicans would meet at the beginning of the year to develop an agenda. Mr. Ryan said it would include a tax overhaul to criminal justice reform, “an issue I didn’t fully grasp until I spent time learning about how people are trying to redeem themselves and have so many roadblocks in front of them that they can’t.”
He invited the Congressional Black Caucus and other minority caucuses to a holiday reception and will try to reach beyond the Republican base. “It means show up and talk to everybody, appeal to everyone,” he said.
And that will start with Republican primary voters, about a third of whom have been swayed so far by Mr. Trump’s recipe of strict immigration policies, tough foreign policy talk, blunt and highly personal critiques of his competitors, and a vague appeal for general greatness.
“There is this real, palpable anxiety in the country” fueled by stagnant wages and slow economic growth, Mr. Ryan said, “and then you turn on the TV and you see ISIS, you see San Bernardino and you see all these security threats, and it’s like the world is on fire.”
At the same time, “we have to make sure populism doesn’t trump individual rights,” he said. “It’s a distraction to prey on fears.”
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