Paul Ryan enters his first full year as speaker of the House with a unified caucus, an ambitious agenda, and an audacious goal: Go on offense against President Obama and the Democratic Party, while laying the predicate for unified Republican control of government in 2017. "We have no clue who our nominee is going to be," Ryan tells me over the phone, "and the last thing we should do is sit around and wait."
Ryan says he learned in 2012 that Republicans should make the case for their policies as quickly and as forcefully as possible. "We can’t sit around and be reactionaries and walk into every trap Obama sets for us. We have to nationalize the election on ideas and give the country a choice." He wants an "honest election" that results in a "mandate election victory" for the next president: "An honest election isn’t running on vague platitudes, it isn’t a personality contest. It’s explaining who you are, what you believe, what you intend to do, and why it relates to people."
I spoke to Ryan as he prepared to return to Wisconsin in time for a parent-teacher conference. What’s surprised him most about being speaker, he said, is how much he likes the job. "I reengineered the job, loosening it up, decentralizing power through regular order. I’m not sitting in an office trying to predetermine everything. I’ve made it more of a policy and communications role." He’s stuck to his pledge of dedicating weekends to his family. The atmosphere at the recent House Republican retreat, he said, was "very good, very pumped." Congressmen are energized; they want to work. "We’re not sitting in these jobs hoping to keep them and have careers as politicians. We all know the general direction we want to go."
Ryan doesn’t want the House to be a counterweight to the eventual nominee. He wants it to be complementary, supplying the ideas and proposals that will make the general election campaign substantive and forthright. His model is the election of 1980, when Ryan’s mentors Jack Kemp and Vin Weber added supply-side economics to Ronald Reagan’s conservative portfolio.
In speeches at the Library of Congress in December and at the House retreat last week, Ryan identified five categories of reform: economic growth, health care and entitlements, national security, poverty, and constitutionalism and the separation of powers. Notice immigration is not on the list. Poverty was a major topic at a recent candidates’ forum in South Carolina. "We basically think of this as welfare reform 2.0," Ryan says.
He’s letting proposals develop organically through the process of regular order, with committee chairmen taking point on issues under their jurisdiction. The rollout is planned for the spring and summer so that, by the time the Republican National Convention begins in Cleveland on July 18, the public has a sense of what Republicans would do with the White House and Congress. He says the public will like what it sees. "Republicans win ideas contests. Democrats typically win personality contests."
Do ideas matter? It’s a question I’ve been thinking about lately. The rise of Donald Trump, whose ideas on immigration and trade and foreign policy are so different from those of the last Republican president, has made me wonder if ideas are not as important as the sentiments, emotions, passions, attachments, jealousies, and resentments of the groups and individuals who argue for them.
"Principle matters most," Ryan says after a pause. "And ideas come from principles. Liberty, freedom, self-determination, and government by consent: If you want a government that reflects that, you have to commit yourself publicly to these principles. Ideas are motivating. Ideas are inspirational. Ideas are unifying. As conservatives, we need to win converts. This is what we think is necessary to go out and win converts."
Ryan describes his relationship with the White House as "cordial, professional." He and Joe Biden, his sparring partner in 2012, had "fine, lighthearted conversations" before President Obama’s State of the Union Address. He says he and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell invited South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley to deliver the GOP response on a joint conference call. She and her team wrote the speech without assistance from Washington. Ryan saw a draft the night before. "This looks good to me," he said, adding that he doesn’t think Haley was referring to Trump in particular when she decried the "angriest voices" garnering attention and support during this election cycle.
Ryan is not an angry voice. Yet he’s determined to be heard amid the din of the presidential campaign and the rush of global events. It’s worth pausing to reflect on his remarkable rise during the Obama presidency. In the space of seven years, he’s gone from the ranking member of the House Budget Committee to vice presidential nominee to second in line for the presidency. He’s gone from proposing an overhaul of taxes and entitlements to organizing a full-scale reinvention of U.S. domestic and foreign policy. He’s gone from conservative wunderkind to, in the eyes of his critics, the paragon of the Republican establishment. He’s 45 years old.
A thought occurred to me as I watched the president’s final State of the Union. Barack Obama will be gone next year. And Paul Ryan is just getting started.