Paul Ryan is taking a different approach to life after a lost election than the last person who came up short in a campaign for vice president.
From election night through Inauguration Day, Ryan largely stayed below the media radar, taking some time off and then going back to his day job in Congress. As chairman of the House Budget Committee, he worked behind the scenes during the fiscal-cliff negotiations, despite a newly raised national profile that others might have used to grandstand. In the end, he supported both the compromise to prevent a tax increase on more than 98 per cent of Americans, and House Speaker John A. Boehner, though many conservatives hoped he’d challenge both.
And now, post-inauguration, what’s his watchword for President Barack Obama’s second term?
In a short, measured address to about 900 conservatives attending a summit sponsored by National Review last weekend in Washington, Ryan laid out a strategy for the next four years. There was a little bit of policy, but mostly he talked about how Republicans should responsibly handle being an opposition party, in their dealings with the president — and one another.
"Sometimes we’ll have to reject the president’s proposals," he said. "And sometimes we’ll have to make them better."
Either way, Republicans will need to be focused on what’s good for the country, not the politics.
"The president will bait us," Ryan said. "He’ll portray us as cruel and unyielding. Just the other day, he said Republicans had ‘suspicions’ about Social Security. He said we had ‘suspicions’ about feeding hungry children... Look, it’s the same trick he plays every time: Fight a straw man. Avoid honest debate. Win the argument by default.
"But we can’t get rattled. We won’t play the villain in his morality plays. We have to stay united. We have to show that — if given the chance — we can govern. We have better ideas."
To go forward, Republicans will have to be smart — and prudent.
"Prudence is good judgment in the art of governing," he said. "Abraham Lincoln called it ‘one of the cardinal virtues.’ And it’s our greatest obligation as public servants. We have to find the good in every situation — and choose the best means to achieve it. We have to make decisions anchored in reality."
He cited Republican votes in favor of the fiscal-cliff deal as an example.
"Here’s how I saw it: On Jan. 1, a $4.4 trillion tax hike took effect," he said. "The Senate voted overwhelmingly to prevent tax hikes for 98 per cent of Americans. It made the lower tax rates permanent — something we couldn’t achieve when George W. Bush was in office. And President Obama got less revenue than the speaker offered in the first place. In short, there was no way we’d get a better deal."
Conservatives can now use their divisions on that issue to attack one another, perhaps subjecting those who voted yes to primary challenges in 2014, or they can think strategically.
"Prudence demands mutual understanding — especially among friends," Ryan said. "My colleagues and I sought the same end: We wanted a smaller, smarter government. We simply differed on the means. That’s the difficulty of governing. It shouldn’t be a cause for division."
Ryan noted that James Madison, now known as the Father of the Constitution, didn’t get everything he wanted out of that convention in Philadelphia in 1787. Nevertheless, he accepted the compromises made and fought hard for ratification. As a result, his adversaries drafted James Monroe to run against him for Congress. "The 18th-century equivalent of ‘getting primaried,’" Ryan called it.
If Republicans are smart, and prudently manage their disagreements, they have an important role to play in the next four years, Ryan said: "to mitigate bad policy — and to advance good policy wherever we can."
He expects House Republicans to offer plans on tax reform, protecting Medicare and Medicaid, and balancing the budget. Though here, too, he understands the reality of the situation.
"Democrats are unlikely to accept our proposals," he said. "But we will lay the groundwork for future endeavors. So when reform is possible, we will be ready."
In the meantime, despite understandable discouragement and tough political fights ahead, conservatives mustn’t give in to despair. They have to remain engaged, he said.
"Our country is worth the fight," Ryan said. "With your help — and with a touch of prudence — we will win it."
Kevin Ferris is assistant editor of the Editorial Page of the Philadelphia Inquirer.