Repairing The GOP Brand May Be Harder than Speaker Ryan Realizes

Since his election to the House Speaker position on October 29, 2015, with necessary support from Tea Party supporters (the Freedom Caucus), Paul Ryan stated that he is hopeful about finding common ground with House Republicans. Speaker Ryan wants to convey the message that Republicans have a vision and can govern.

He is aware of the reputational damage to the Republican brand from a lack of vision and partisan gridlock that dominated Congress since Republicans took control of the House in 2011. Among other things, Ryan asserts that common ground can be found without compromising conservative principles. According to Ryan:

“I have a lot of friends in the Democratic caucus. We don’t agree on a lot, but we have good friendships . . . . I believe we have an obligation to look for common ground where we can find it, and I think my career shows that. So am I spirited in defense of my principles and in offering alternatives when I think that the other party and the president is going in the wrong direction? Absolutely.” (Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel)

I believe we have an obligation to look for common ground where we can find it.
U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan
“I think it would be ridiculous to try and attempt for immigration reform with a president we simply cannot trust. . . . . I believe that you can find common ground without compromising principle, for the good of the country. But if there are areas where you do not agree, were you think the country’s headed in the wrong direction, you have an obligation to say how you would do things differently.” (Wisconsin Radio Network)

In a CNN interview with Fredericka Whitfield on Sunday, November 1, 2015 (12:00-1:00 p.m. PST), Ryan stated that conservatives have been too frustrated for too long. Because Ryan did not mention them or their frustrations, House Democrats are presumably irrelevant despite Ryan’s friendships.

Democrat irrelevance is reinforced by Ryan’s embrace of the Hastert Rule, presumably to force Republicans to come to consensus on legislation. He also indicated that he would change House rules to allow committees to be “bold” and show Americans the Republican vision of governing. That implies that frustrated Freedom Caucus conservatives will finally exert more influence on House legislation.

Given recent and current history and his own self-contradictory and deceptive statements, an objective listener can reasonably conclude that, whether he is conscious of it or not, Ryan is giving the American people a clear view of the near future, which is more gridlock.

Ryan’s public comments strongly imply that congressional gridlock will not end at least until a Republican is president, Republicans control the House, and Republicans have a filibuster-proof Senate majority. Speaker Ryan cannot come out and simply say this in so many words. That kind of candor would inflict more reputational damage to the Republican brand.

However, it is possible that Ryan does not understand either the obvious implications of what he is saying or why it is illogical. Regardless, his words telegraph what is coming.

Context: Recent history

Shortly after John Boehner was elected House Speaker in 2011, with support from House Tea Party conservatives, a 60 Minutes interview raised the issues of governing and compromise. After being repeatedly pressed by interviewer Leslie Stahl, Boehner finally relented and stated in four words his view of the role of compromise in governing: “I reject the word.”

Instead, Boehner repeatedly asserted that he would find “common ground” with Democrats. Whether Boehner anticipated it or not, the rise of a House Freedom Caucus unwilling to compromise turned out to be almost as significant a source of gridlock as Democratic opposition.

Finding common ground has amounted mostly to either gridlock or legislation that is backed by House Democrats over Tea Party opposition (in violation of the Democrats ignoring the Hastert Rule). That opposition and its impatience with politics as usual hardened since Boehner came into power. The Tea Party attitude toward compromise is accurately characterized in just two words: “HELL NO!” (here, here, here)

Analysis: Facts & logic

Absent either compromise on principle or overwhelming dominance by one party in the executive and legislative branches of government, the federal government can barely function legislatively, while executive function is significantly crippled. The Founders intended that federal governance be difficult and in today’s environment they got what they wanted.

Compromise is a necessary component of normal governance. The Founding Fathers were fully aware of that necessity.
Dissident Politics
Compromise is a necessary component of normal governance. The Founding Fathers were fully aware of that necessity.

Nothing that Speaker Ryan said indicates that he has a different meaning for “finding common ground” than what it turned out to deliver under Boehner. The media doesn’t demand clarity and Ryan himself has not volunteered it to date — e.g., in press releases or in interviews.

Therefore, finding common ground can be reasonably expected to deliver more legislative gridlock at least until after a new president assumes power in January 2017.

Ryan’s words reinforce that conclusion. Ryan — and presumably the rest of the Republican caucus — distrust the president so much that they openly refuse to even pass an immigration law in the House.

The illogic of that is obvious. The House could pass its own law on immigration reform, knowing full well that it would never pass the Senate. Distrust of the president is just an excuse that some Republicans use to hide the fact that their party “has lacked a vision,” as Ryan puts it. What Ryan fails to mention is the fact that (i) both the president and Republican trust in him is irrelevant and (ii) Ryan’s party in the House is at war with itself and with Democrats — i.e., there are three warring factions in the House.

The point of Ryan’s intentions is to repair the Republican brand, show Americans the conservative vision of America, and help the Republicans win the White House in the 2016 election. In light of his public statements, it is hard to see how Ryan’s election to House Speaker can change much of anything in the House or accomplish any of his goals.

The “HELL NO” House faction along with the Hastert Rule, Democratic irrelevance, and a continuing lack of conservative vision all mitigate for continued legislative gridlock.

Despite the obvious perils of predicting the future, it is reasonable to predict that legislative gridlock will continue at least until 2018 or 2020 if Democrats can still filibuster in the Senate or if a Democrat is elected president in 2016.

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