Somewhere in America, or maybe somewhere in time, there is a party for Paul Ryan to lead, but it may not be today’s Republican Party.
Last week, the House speaker unveiled his plan to address persistent poverty called “A Better Way.” In any other year, “a better way” would be an explicit reference to Democrats’ way of solving problems. Instead of Democrats’ big-government prescriptions, the argument usually goes, there is a better way.
But on Tuesday, Ryan’s better way was just as much an alternative to the direction Donald Trump is taking the Republican Party as an alternative to Democrats. Instead of the anger-laced, race-based, parade of grievances that Trump has offered up, Ryan’s better way meant walking to a podium hand-in-hand with Shirley Holloway, an African American bishop in Anacostia, to telegraph that his Republican party is more than insults, tweets and blame.
It was the first of a five-part plan to put a policy-based infrastructure inside the party’s ideology. But just what that ideology has become is the central question plaguing Republicans in 2016. Are they George Bush’s compassionate conservatives or Donald Trump’s rich-is-good capitalists? Are they John McCain’s global leaders or Trump’s America-firsters? Ronald Reagan’s Morning in America or Trump’s insistence that America is in in decline?
Since Ryan’s days at the side of Jack Kemp, he has included the small-“w” welfare of the nation’s poorest in his measure of a country’s prosperity. When he became chairman of the House Budget Committee, he quietly began a two-year journey through the lowest-income neighborhoods in America. When he became speaker, he held a forum about fixing poverty and asked all of the GOP’s presidential candidates to attend. Many did. Donald Trump did not.
Since that event in January, Ryan has been quietly working with House Republicans to craft a conservative-approved policy framework for everything from poverty to national security, while Trump barreled through the country to win more GOP primary votes than any previous candidate in history. In the process, Trump put a blow torch to Republicans’ old way of doing almost everything.
Instead of the comprehensive immigration reform that Ryan and other Hill Republicans had championed for years, Trump rocketed to the top of the polls by promising to build his beautiful wall. Instead of Ryan’s signature entitlement reforms, Trump vowed to leave Medicare and Social Security completely untouched. Instead of more trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership that Ryan supported, Trump promised to stop TPP, NAFTA, and all the others in their tracks.
More than anything, instead of the incremental, polite change that Ryan represents, Trump offered Republican voters a Washington wrecking ball dressed like a New York billionaire and they loved it. Trump ignited a passion in voters the GOP has not seen in decades, but he also lashed out at groups the Republican Party won’t be able to live without in the future—women, Latinos, African-Americans, and Muslims. Democrats warned voters of Trump’s echoes of fascism, while Republicans like Sen. Mark Kirk withdrew their endorsements of him altogether.
The brewing GOP civil war over Trump’s way has complicated Ryan’s way in the process. As Ryan spoke about his poverty plan, he tried to define the party that he believes he is leading. He noted that “self-restraint is the essence of self-respect.” He said Republicans want to run “inclusive” and “inspiring” campaigns. In answer to a question about Donald Trump’s attack on a Latino federal judge, Ryan called Trump’s comments “the textbook definition of a racist comment,” but explained that for the GOP, “What matters most to us is our principles and the policies that come from those principles.”
Self-restraint, inclusion, and principles may be the pillars of Paul Ryan’s GOP, where poverty is the first topic on the agenda and Trump’s comments are “antithetical to what we believe Republicans stand for” (even though Ryan has endorsed Trump anyway)?
John Boehner used to say “a leader without followers is just a man taking a walk.” Donald Trump got 13.4 million votes for president. Paul Ryan got 236 votes for speaker. Ryan’s commitment to serious policies and real solutions is sincere, but it’s not clear Paul Ryan’s GOP exists anymore. Without a party ready to follow him, he may just be just a man taking a walk.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy