Speaker Paul D. Ryan is campaigning, just not for president.
Well, at least not yet. The Wisconsin Republican is campaigning for the future of the Republican Party, trying to sell conservatism to a new generation of voters and to show that the GOP has an ideas platform on which to run beyond this seditious 2016 election season.
That future may or may not involve Ryan running for president one day, but either way, it’s clear he’s trying to make sure the Republican Party remains a viable choice.
Ryan held a campaign-style town hall event at Georgetown University on Wednesday in which he asked, “Why support Republicans?”
His answer: “The America that you want is the America that we want: open, diverse, dynamic. It’s what I call a confident America.”
But is Ryan’s idea of America really want millennials want?
A recent national poll of more than 3,100 18- to 29-year-olds conducted by Harvard’s Institute of Politics found that 61 percent of millennials would prefer a Democrat to be the next president, compared to 33 percent who would like to see a Republican elected to the White House.
And that’s not just because millennials don’t like the current crop of Republican presidential candidates. Three-quarters (76 percent) of the respondents to the Harvard poll said they disapprove of the Republicans in Congress.
And for a campaign-style event at Georgetown, his ideas didn’t really rally the crowd.
So can Ryan and House Republicans, with such a high disapproval rating among millennials, woo young voters with their agenda to rewrite the tax code, replace the Affordable Care Act, overhaul entitlement and poverty programs, boost national security and restore the constitutional powers of the legislative branch?
Possibly, but it will take more than that.
“I think there are a lot of young people that would really respond well to the Republican argument in terms of economics, but I think a lot of people have hang ups about the way conservatives and Republicans tackle social issues,” Joe Luther, former president of Georgetown’s student association, said in an interview after the event. “And so I wish he talked more about the future of the Republican Party in that sense.”
Ryan drew some of the loudest cheers and genuine applause from the Georgetown students when he denounced the Confederate flag as a divisive symbol. His remarks were in response to a student who referred to the House Administration Committee’s decision to replace state flags in the Rayburn House Office Building with state quarters as “renewed Northern Republican reconstruction” and “the erasure of southern symbols and the ostracization of southern voters by the GOP.”
The speaker’s answers to comments about addressing soaring student loan debt and health care costs by creating competition in the marketplace drew some applause, which appeared to be a mix of enthusiasm and a gesture of respect.
But not once during Ryan’s discussion of policies like rewriting the tax code or overhauling entitlement programs to help reign in the nation’s debt did the students seem energized.
A student named Conner, noting he will never vote for Donald Trump and that Ted Cruz does little to appeal to him as a young voter, asked what advice Ryan could offer to young Republicans like himself who find it difficult to support the party’s two leading candidates?
“Unfortunately this is not the first time I’ve had this question,” Ryan said before suggesting, “Look at the ideas. Look at the platform that’s being advanced. Look at the agenda project that we are advancing.”
Michael, the student who spoke next, wasn’t excited about that answer.
“In my state of Arizona where Republicans controlled the governorship and both houses and in many other states across the country, probably most infamously Kansas, we’ve seen some your ideas put to the test where government is getting off people’s backs by cutting taxes and slashing regulations.
“Yet, teachers are leaving Arizona in droves. Kansas Republicans aren’t seeing the economy growing. In fact, they’re almost in open revolt against their governor. How can you ask me to support some of these ideas nationally when I look back at my state or many other states where you have the political will and opportunity to enact this path and it doesn’t seem to be working?”
Ryan noted that Kansas has seen “pretty impressive” business development growth and said that nationally the United States is at a competitive disadvantage compared to other countries with drastically lower tax rates.
“Yes, these theories do work,” the speaker said. “When we lower tax rates, especially in this global competition, it helps, it works, it is successful. So maybe it’s a difference between federal and state government, but we are in a global economy whether we like it or not and we better be globally competitive.”
Luther, who noted he identifies as an independent, said Ryan’s concerns about the deficit and the tax code resonated with him. But, he added, “His solutions about slashing education, entitlements and things like that – I think that takes the country in the wrong direction.”
But even if the students didn’t like everything Ryan was saying, they did get the point of his campaign.
“I think he was definitely trying to refocus the message of conservatism and trying to recapture that away from the two candidates who have been so polarizing in leading the Republican Party in the presidential race,” Luther said.