It is said that one should not judge a book by its cover. But consider the dust jacket of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI)’s The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea.
A smiling Ryan is walking down a banner-festooned rope line, hands grasping those of supporters along the way, his hair a youthful black, his blue-shirt-and-chinos outfit crisply pressed.
And–oddly–almost no one is making eye contact with Ryan. Some seem to be looking past him.
Ryan might be a national leader without a national constituency. He was embraced by the Tea Party in 2010, when his bold stand against Obamacare electrified the conservative base, and his ambitious plan for entitlement reform provided the new movement with a solid policy foundation.
Today, amidst his budget compromises and enthusiasm for immigration reform, the Tea Party–or its loudest voices, anyway–seem to be “breaking up” with him, notes Politico.
Some of the new conservative opposition to Ryan is rather contrived, stoked by the need to find targets among the Republican “establishment.” Ryan is somewhat bemused–and frustrated–to find himself portrayed as a member of that elite, after spending years on the outside, railing against big-spending Republicans and offering ambitious fiscal reforms in a “Plan for Prosperity” that the GOP leadership was afraid to touch before 2011.
Ryan denies any split. “I know the conservative movement comes into conflict with each other now and then, and that’s healthy,” he told Breitbart News on Sunday. “But ultimately, we need to focus on winning converts.”
That is the basic purpose of The Way Forward, he says.
“My goal is just to do my part in trying to build a unified conservative movement that can focus on winning converts and expanding our appeal, so that we can ultimately win national elections,” he says. He wants to “expand the appeal of conservatism and constitutional principles…in a way that’s appealing, attractive, and aspirational, so that we can have a 1980-type of election again, which is what I think we’re going to need if we’re going to fix our problems and get our country back on track.”
Still, Ryan understands that he must hold onto traditional conservative support while courting non-traditional voters. And his sense of the party’s grass roots has sometimes been wide of the mark.
When I interviewed him about immigration reform in April 2013, for example, he called the Senate’s “Gang of Eight” bill “a good step in the right direction,” though he did not endorse it. He had underestimated the strength of public opposition to the bill–and to Obama’s immigration policy more broadly.
In The Way Forward, Ryan emphasizes that border security is primary: “First, we must secure the border and enforce the laws we have on the books,” he says, before going on to propose reforms that address the “12 million undocumented immigrants…in a commonsense way.” He also explains why he voted to defund Obama’s “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” because of concerns about the Constitution and the rule of law–a position he defended again at a book signing recently when confronted by amnesty activists.
One suspects that such explanations may not quite be enough to heal the conservative breach.
Speaking to Breitbart News, Ryan says he wants “to make sure our movement stays unified and principled so that we can win elections and save the country.”
Yet his aim in the book is to reach a different audience, perhaps those who took their cues from Obama propagandists and wrote him off in 2012 as a heartless budget-cutter, or as somehow dishonest for insisting that an entitlement system running out of money needed to be fixed.
The book dwells sentimentally on stories from Ryan’s past–standard fare for political memoirs, perhaps, but serving a particular purpose here.
That purpose is to convince readers that Ryan understands the poor, and those who must rely on various forms of public assistance, even as they struggle to become self-sufficient, and even as he tries to undo some of the welfare state programs on which they depend.
Ryan acknowledges that he wanted to highlight his capacity for empathy in the book, especially in writing about his father, who struggled with alcohol before dying of a heart attack while Ryan was still in high school.
“Everybody has their own experiences. And having someone with addiction in your family, and having tragedy in your family–the argument I’m making is that you can have a comeback in your family,” Ryan told Breitbart News.
“If I didn’t talk about the important parts in my life,” he added, “the book would be whitewashing, inaccurate, incomplete.
“There’s also something important to relating to people in that way.”
In one notable passage, Ryan describes how he has stopped using the rhetorical contrast between “makers” and “takers,” because it disparages those on the receiving end.
After hearing a Democrat rip into him at the Wisconsin State Fair in 2012, Ryan recalls, he began to reconsider his language. “Although he doesn’t know it,” Ryan says, “that guy taught me a valuable lesson that day. It took me a while to completely come around, but I soon realized that the phrase I’d been using implied a certain judgment about the group that receives government benefits–one that is in deep conflict with the American idea.”
That story may provide ammunition to conservative critics who have charged that Ryan is buckling under the weight of pressure from Democrats and the media: “All that wears on a person,” one recently wrote accusingly.
Ryan denies that he is backing away from the political fight.
“It’s not that–it’s that I was shutting a whole group of people off from our message. If we’re going to bring people into the fold, if we’re going to bring our message to non-traditional voters, we have to do so in a way that brings them into the conversation.
“Using a clumsy message can cut people off from hearing the message in the first place.”
Perhaps. More cynically, one could speculate that Ryan senses an opening in 2016 for a moderate candidate–that, as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) pull the Republican Party to the right, there is more space in the center, and that Ryan gauges that he could occupy it more successfully than an opportunist like Jon Huntsman did.
But there is also a simpler explanation, which goes beyond politics and posturing, to the person beneath the policy debate: Ryan is simply finding his voice, while trying to find the best way to achieve the widest appeal for his conservative ideas.
And, like his mentor Jack Kemp, he is particularly concerned about reaching the poor, whom he believes would benefit most from policies promoting opportunity and self-reliance, rather than redistribution and dependence.
In that vein, earlier this month, Ryan released a new plan for addressing poverty, “Expanding Opportunity in America.” The plan, which focuses on shifting spending from the federal government to the states and to local organizations, won praise from some die-hard liberals.
Conservatives fretted about squaring Ryan’s plan with his support for immigration reform, which some fear would grow the ranks of the indigent, a concern Ryan has disputed.
The trouble is that the poor tend to find promises of big government seductive, even as big government fails.
They are not alone: a recent Reason-Rupe poll found that two-thirds of young Americans see government as wasteful and inefficient than ever before–and yet they want more of it. Ryan puts that paradox down to the “customization” that young people expect in their lives, believing they can have the good of government without the bad.
Yet convincing them otherwise will take more than Ryan’s evident sincerity: it will take political skill, and sensitivity. That remains Ryan’s greatest challenge.
He writes, for example, that he believes he won the Vice Presidential debate with Joe Biden in 2012 by ignoring Biden’s wild gestures and interruptions: “I didn’t take the bait and delivered most of the points I was hoping to make.”
Yet while Ryan may have edged Biden in post-debate polls, Biden’s performance was a crucial lift for Democrats, who wanted to see their ticket in fighting spirit after Obama’s weak performance in his first debate.
It is that fighting spirit that some conservatives find lacking in Ryan today–and that, more than any change in tactics or rhetoric, probably counts for much of the mistrust.
There are occasional moments of fireworks, as in June, when Ryan confronted the commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service over the lost emails of Lois Lerner, the former head of the Exempt Organizations division that targeted Tea Party groups for several years.
More often, in the wake of the 2012 defeat, and especially since the failure of the shutdown over Obamacare in 2013, Ryan has sought ways to work with Democrats–not just to show a will to compromise, but to wrest incremental conservative policy gains when large ones are impossible.
“Like the Founders and like Lincoln,” Ryan writes, “we must stay true to our principles but, like them, we must make practical decisions to advance our principles under the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Sometimes we must be bold, and other times we must be careful and bide our time.”
That pragmatic approach bespeaks a political maturity rare in Washington. Unfortunately, it is also a tough way to rally the political base. It is also a difficult way to sell a book.
What Ryan offers in The Way Forward is less a policy manifesto and more a personal profile: the memoir is perfectly timed to fuel speculation about the Republican presidential field in 2016.
He notes that the book tour has given him the opportunity to consider the presidential path. “I’m seeing a lot of folks I got to see before, familiar faces from the campaign trail,” he told Breitbart News on Sunday.
Ryan has left the door open to running–if not in 2016, then certainly in the long future ahead. His greatest challenge will be to build a wider base of support. In that sense, the way forward remains a difficult one.