Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s final few months in office will likely be shaped by his handling of a looming government funding battle and his party’s performance in the midterm elections, but he has a different message he’d like to send as he departs.
“Most days, we tend to lurch from crisis to crisis, whether real or manufactured. But we need to have the ability to look around the corner, and plan for what’s ahead,” Ryan plans to say Thursday during a speech at the launch of the Reagan Institute in Washington, according to prepared remarks shared with Roll Call.
Planning for what’s ahead — beyond the November election, beyond this Congress, beyond this administration — is what the Wisconsin Republican has been trying to inspire his party to do as he prepares to retire in January.
Ryan’s address to the Reagan Institute, which will conclude with a question and answer session hosted by National Review Editor in Chief Rich Lowry, is the latest in a series of speeches and media appearances that could be called his swan song tour.
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The speaker has been using the events to reinforce the themes of his 20-year career, whether it be driving economic growth through policies like the GOP tax overhaul or combating identity politics by through inclusive leadership.
But more importantly he’s also sent messages about the future, advice for the generation of leaders that will follow in his path.
Those messages have come through in different themes: civility and civil society during a speech and question and answer session with congressional interns, constitutional government, tribalism and identity politics during a conversation with the American Enterprise Institute’s Jonah Goldberg and free market conservatism during a speech at the Economic Club of Washington that also included a Q&A portion.
At the Reagan Institute event Thursday the theme will be America’s leadership on the world stage.
‘The big test’
The speaker will talk about threats to democracy from expected sources like Russia and Islamist extremists located throughout the Middle East. But Ryan will also highlight China’s challenge to democratic capitalism, calling America’s response to that “the big test, the generational-defining challenge.”
Enter Ryan’s advice, the big takeaways he has drawn from his successes and failures.
“The task for us, and what I have made the mission of my time as speaker, is building up our country’s resilience, our antibodies,” Ryan plans to say. “We want our institutions — economic, military, and political — to be sturdy enough to adapt to change, and withstand the inevitable ups and downs.”
Ryan is set to open his speech with a rare anecdote about his father, who died when he was 16. He describes his parents as apolitical, but the exception when it came to his father was former President Ronald Reagan.
“He admired how President Reagan came from modest means to become president. Whenever Reagan appeared on the news, my dad would nod approvingly — a high compliment from him,” Ryan plans to say.
He will then go on to describe one of his first political memories, watching Reagan’s first address to Congress in 1981 with his father.
A comment Reagan made during that speech struck the then 11-year-old Ryan and has motivated him to this day: “Together, we can embark on this road, not to make things easy, but to make things better. . . . There is nothing wrong with America that together we can’t fix.”
Ryan, who often describes himself as a Reagan conservative (or a Jack Kemp conservative), has drawn lessons from the former president he thinks should be replicated today.
For example, he will mention in his speech Reagan’s visit to China in 1984, in which critics panned the president for visiting a communist country, but in which he espoused beliefs about democracy and free markets, something allies pointed, defending him for holding to his principles.
“We have to be ambassadors for what we believe, wherever we are, without equivocation,” Ryan will say.
During a WisPolitics question and answer session Wednesday in the Capitol, Ryan explained why he identifies as a Reagan conservative.
“What I mean when I say that is aspirational, inclusive politics, which tries to unify,” he said. “But [the] internet, money, has proven identity politics works. It’s politically effective. It’s morally wrong, but it’s politically effective.”
Conservatives once believed that identity politics was a tactic Democrats deployed to rile up their base, but Ryan acknowledged that’s not the case these days.
“Unfortunately, now it’s done all over the darn place,” he said. “So this is one of the things I want to spend time thinking about when I’m done with this [job] … is how do you make inclusive, aspirational, unifying politics — it’s free market conservatism, the stuff I believe in — how do you make it strategically valuable. How do you make it that this is the winning thing?”
As long as President Donald Trump, who has made withering political attacks on political foes and deployed identity politics consistently over the last three years, is leading the Republican Party, it’s not going to be easy to answer that question.
Ryan has tried to stay above the fray, avoiding direct criticisms of his political foes or his reluctant allies like the president. While he has called for more inclusive leadership, some of his critics feel he has not lived up to that with his failure to call out Trump for divisive remarks.
The speaker brushes off such criticism, saying he feels it is more productive to address disagreements with the president privately and to publicly focus on their shared policy goals.
Still, Ryan aspires to push the political tone in a more positive direction. He just hasn’t come up with the right argument yet.
“You literally have to figure out how you beat tribalism,” he said, noting the case has to go beyond it being the morally right thing to do, to the strategically the right thing to do. “We have a long way to go on that.”
Maybe part of the answer can be found in the past.
“President Reagan charted the right course — it’s peace through strength, pro-growth economy, clear moral leadership. It is not a new or magic formula,” Ryan will say in his speech Thursday. “What is needed is a new willingness to think big, go bold, and see things through. To show the largeness of spirit that this moment requires.”