Guest Editorial: Paul Ryan, not a party of one

Bloomberg View
Oct. 29
Guest Editorial

Whether Paul Ryan succeeds as speaker of the House is not entirely up to Paul Ryan. The Wisconsin Republican, who ascended to the post Thursday, is well-suited to lead. He’s a skilled communicator and veteran legislator who can tap deep wells of respect inside and outside Congress. But the question is whether his party is willing to let anyone lead — and succeed — in Washington.

John Boehner’s speakership was broken by the insatiable demands of his party’s right-wing fringe. Throughout his tenure, Boehner repeatedly appeased its drive toward destruction, offering up shutdowns and debt-ceiling brinkmanship to enable anti-government legislators to take symbolic stands. Substantive legislation took a backseat to show votes. Confrontation was lionized and compromise condemned. Eventually, Boehner was consumed by the very forces to which he had surrendered.

Ryan has the skills and credibility to break this ugly pattern, but only if a majority in his conference summon the courage to stand with him against the ultras. Already, a chorus of voices on radio and the Internet is attacking Ryan as too compromising and accommodating.

As it happens, the American political system is built on precisely those qualities. If the right wing of the GOP wants to dictate the terms of U.S. policy, there is a familiar, well-worn path to follow: Earn more votes than the other guys. As long as Americans put one party in charge of the executive branch and another in charge of the legislative branch, successful governance will depend on mutual compromise.

This week’s bipartisan budget deal, negotiated behind closed doors, was not ideal. Ryan said the secretive process “stinks.” He also voted in support of the deal. He was right on both counts. But the deal, like this week’s House vote in favor of renewing the Export-Import Bank (which Ryan opposed), put competent government ahead of partisan combat.

For Ryan to build on those successes, he will need the sensible majority of his conference to take responsibility and stop buckling to fears of primary challenges from the far right. “I know many of you want to show the country how to fix our tax code, how to rebuild our military, how to strengthen the safety net, and how to lift people out of poverty,” Ryan said in a statement to his party colleagues.

History shows that even during election years, and even when government is divided, big legislative accomplishments are possible. Bipartisan welfare reform was signed under both such circumstances during the presidential campaign of 1996. Bipartisan tax reform and immigration reform were passed during the run-up to the 1986 midterms.

Ryan is young, ambitious and no doubt eager to succeed. But he can’t do it alone. If conservative lawmakers can push back against the anti-government fringe, the nation will benefit — and so will their party.