December 28, 2015
Speaker Paul Ryan is the GOP’s canary in a coal mine for 2016. For those who believe mainstream conservatism works and sells, he will provide the best evidence. For those in and around the party who believe neither, likewise.
Most Americans do not pay close attention to Congress. Many voters can’t name their own representative. However, this doesn’t prevent them from knowing they aren’t happy. The Real Clear Politics average shows 13% approval, 76% disapproval of the denizens of Capitol Hill.
Democratic candidates will campaign against Congress. Both houses are currently Republican majority, so they have no incentive to do anything but claim removing GOP control is essential to fixing the dismal legislature.
Donald Trump and Ted Cruz regularly run against the same individuals. Don’t expect Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson, Rand Paul, Chris Christie or Mike Huckabee to say anything nice as long as they are still around. Even Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio aren’t exactly cheerleaders.
John Kasich is the only candidate who constantly talks about his congressional experience and working with the legislature to make compromises. This isn’t exactly helping him just yet.
Upwards of 90% of any presidential candidate commentary is negative. When John Boehner was still on the throne, this didn’t matter very much. No GOP candidates were running on the idea they would do in the White House what he was doing in the other House.
However, though they aren’t ready to reach out and verbally hug Ryan just yet, any credible establishment contender needs him to succeed, and quickly. There are two forms of success. Holding together the House GOP caucus, and posting visible, noticeable, braggable victories.
The recent budget deal, which undid the sequester caps on spending, freeing up a little more funding for defense, in exchange for some Democrat-friendly goodies and a bunch of permanent targeted tax breaks, scored on the first, but failed on the second.
The same House Freedom Caucus members who were responsible for overthrowing Boehner, gave Ryan a pass. From what we can tell from the outside, he’s carrying through on his transparency promises and has assured committee chairmen they will have a larger role in 2016.
He’s following through on the strategy outlined when everyone was debating whether to make concessions to have Ryan take the job. Quickly clean up the mess from 2015, make a deal, even if not perfect, start planning for 2016 much earlier than Boehner would have.
Sounds great, and from where I sit, probably the correct approach. But there’s no proof of concept yet. Just proof of spending and a bunch of smiling Democrats. President Obama took his victory lap year-end press conference last week.
This enables Trump, Cruz and others to double-down on their anti-Washington, outsider pitch. All they need to do is repeat Ryan’s deal allows for over $1 trillion in new spending and plenty of special interest giveaways. Never mind the longer strategic plan. It’s true.
Neither have any reason to cut him slack. Cruz has based his entire national image on pushing back against his own party when they give in. After months of talk, the deal funds Planned Parenthood. No reason for Ted to avoid pointing this out.
Meanwhile, Ryan loudly denounced Trump when he introduced his plan to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the country. I think we all know how The Donald responds to direct criticism. Regardless of who you think the nomination favorite is, Trump and Cruz are likely two of the final three.
While it’s a mistake to dismiss the chances of an establishment-friendly candidate winning the nomination, and the 2016 delegate allocation will give more chances than recent cycles for a GOP contender to shake off early primary losses, without Ryan winning clear victories for Republicans, it won’t easily happen.
Whether Rubio or Christie (maybe), Kasich (very unlikely) or Jeb (still a considerable reach), any non-outsider candidate has to sell GOP voters on the idea a right-of-center president can accomplish more than a right-wing or wild card leader.
If Ryan can’t noticeably win the media war with Democrats over the next few months, voters will also question the odds an establishment-certified candidate will hold up to mainstream media scrutiny in the fall.
Ryan is getting good press now, but that’s because he’s making the Freedom Caucus take their medicine. What happens when he shifts to actively put Obama and Democratic candidates on the spot in 2016?
The last prominent Republican to regularly win the media war was Ronald Reagan. George H.W. Bush is sainted now, but got raked over the coals when he was actually in office. Newt Gingrich was regularly vilified (admittedly he provided plenty of ammunition), George W. Bush scorned.
John McCain lost his media pass the day he got nominated. Mitt Romney was never able to slay the dragon. John Boehner and Mitch McConnell both failed as party spokesmen. If GOP voters are now all from Missouri, you can’t blame them.
For all of the mainstream conservatives who fervently believe a strong enough communicator can remind an at least slightly right-of-center country that they are actually slightly right-of-center, here’s the chance to prove it.
Despite his relative youth, Ryan is very experienced, having spent over two decades in and around Congress. His political mentor, Jack Kemp, was at least partially responsible for Reagan’s conversion to supply-side economics, and has his name on the tax bill that began the Reagan Revolution.
Kemp later partnered with Bill Bradley on the 1986 Tax Reform bill that is a rough model for many of the current candidate proposals. Ryan himself got to see first hand what a fall campaign is like as the 2012 VP nominee. There’s no way he has any illusions at this point.
He has his own agenda to pursue, one his caucus was sold on. Ryan can’t worry about whether his approach is favoring Rubio or Cruz. He is focused on building an argument to give the GOP full control of D.C. for 2017.
That argument is a lot more cohesive with Rubio as a nominee though. Cruz is an uneasy fit, while Trump blows it to hell. If you think Washington has any chance of accomplishing anything under any circumstances, it doesn’t make sense to take a chance on The Donald.
Ryan needs a couple of victories by mid-late March. Otherwise he may find himself at cross-purposes with the eventual nominee.