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GOP principles sound, Paul Ryan says

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January 24, 2013 | comments

By Craig Gilbert of the Journal Sentinel

As Republicans sort through their postelection woes, House budget chair Paul Ryan says the GOP should follow a strategy of "principled prudence" - another term for "choosing our fights wisely."

"Prudence is a virtue, and we shouldn't forget that," Ryan said during a lengthy interview Thursday with the Journal Sentinel in which he discussed his defeat last fall on the Republican presidential ticket, his political and legislative role going forward, and the party's need to strike a balance between pragmatism and ideology.

In one of the only extended interviews the congressman has given since the election, Ryan:

  • Said he wants to be a voice in the party not just on budget and fiscal matters, but on other issues such as poverty and social mobility, where "we need to do a better job of explaining why our ideas are better ideas and bringing those ideas to nontraditional voters."
  • Attributed the GOP's problems to a combination of factors from "getting distracted in petty partisan fights" to not speaking effectively to voters outside the party's base, and to the ability of Democrats to "cloud the issue" and "affix views to you that you don't have."
  • Acknowledged he had little impact on the GOP ticket's state-by-state performance last fall, including in his home state of Wisconsin, where he said his role in a national election made him a more partisan figure to his own House constituents.
  • Said he has "no ill will whatsoever" toward President Barack Obama, but said Republicans continue to believe the president is "more interested in partisan conquest than bipartisan compromise."

Ryan plans to give a speech Saturday about the way forward for Republicans and conservatives at a summit in Washington organized by the National Review Institute (Gov. Scott Walker will be speaking at the same event).

Asked in the interview Thursday about critics of the party who say the GOP has become too uncompromising and absolutist, Ryan suggested Republicans need to be smarter and more prudent in how they wage their policy fights.

He invoked a scene from the movie "Lincoln" in which President Abraham Lincoln seeks to persuade abolitionist firebrand Thaddeus Stevens not to let his zeal for just principles (in this case ending slavery) get in the way of making practical progress toward that goal. Lincoln tells Stevens that a compass may show the way to "true north," but "if in pursuit of your destination you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp, what's the use of knowing true north?"

Ryan said, "There are lessons to be learned there for any political party, ours among them."

Ryan has taken at least two key fiscal votes since the election in which he parted company from the most conservative members of his caucus: one for the "fiscal cliff" deal that included a tax increase on the highest earners and one Wednesday to suspend enforcement of the debt ceiling until May. At the same time, he has vowed to draft a budget that balances in 10 years, which appeals to the party's fiercest spending hawks.

The Janesville Republican said he never seriously considered leaving Congress after his vice presidential defeat. Instead, he received a waiver from House GOP term limits that would have ended his chairmanship of the budget committee.

He has waved off questions about a possible presidential run in 2016, calling them premature.

"I don't have regrets" about the 2012 campaign, he said. "My family has come out of this perfectly well. We're back in the normal life here in Janesville. . . . I feel like I'm back to normal and it just took some time to process it all."

He said taking his daughter hunting afterward (she got her first deer, he said) was "really cathartic."

Trying to reconnect

During the campaign, Ryan had expressed confidence about adding several points to the GOP ticket in his home state and putting Democratic-leaning Wisconsin up for grabs.

Asked if he was surprised he wasn't more help to Mitt Romney in Wisconsin, where Obama won by seven points, Ryan said:

"Not at the end. Everybody kept telling me, 'The running mate doesn't make a huge difference. It helps define issues, but it doesn't bring states, it doesn't do a lot.' Most of these so-called experts told me, 'Don't have high expectations for what you can do electorally.' And I think that proved to be true."

Ryan won re-election to Congress by about 12 points - his smallest re-election margin ever - and the Romney-Ryan ticket carried his southern Wisconsin district by only four points, a smaller margin than Republicans once hoped.

"I think a lot of people (before the 2012 race) didn't really see me as 'Paul Ryan, Republican.' They saw me as 'my representative.' And when you get thrown on a ticket, they see you as, 'Paul Ryan, Republican,' " the congressman said. "So clearly I got more of a party identity affixed to me than I've had before. And my job, my goal, is to go back to those people who have always supported me in the past because of who I am, not because of the party I belonged to, and tell them, 'Look, I'm the same guy. I haven't changed.' "

Going into the election, Ryan often portrayed the contest as a grand referendum between competing worldviews, in which the American electorate could resolve a long-standing debate and choose between a Republican philosophy of individual liberty and free markets and (his words) a more collectivist Democratic vision of a European-style social welfare state.

But Ryan has downplayed the broader implications of the GOP defeat since the election, arguing Wednesday at a Wall Street Journal breakfast that the outcome was closer than people realize and was partly attributable to Democrats' "phenomenal" job using technology to identify their voters and turn them out.

In the Journal Sentinel interview, Ryan said the party's principles were sound and "we shouldn't be ashamed of those."

"Where I think we fall down is we get distracted in petty partisan fights and we haven't done a good enough job of showing how these principles work in practice to solve problems, and how everyone in America no matter who they are, where they come from, what their current station in life is, benefits from them, and that's where we have our work cut out for us," he said.

Reaching nonwhites

Asked about his role going forward, Ryan said his goal is it to be a "leader obviously on economic and fiscal issues, but also to be a leader on other issues where I think we need to do a better job of explaining why our ideas are better ideas, and bringing those ideas to nontraditional voters."

Ryan cited "social mobility" as an issue the party needs to put a "great focus" on.

Ryan said he wanted to be active in doing outreach to groups that haven't been voting Republican. The GOP's huge deficit last fall among nonwhite voters in an increasingly diverse electorate is hugely alarming to many party strategists and may lead to a softening of the party's stand on immigration.

During the GOP primaries, Romney took a hard line on the issue and spoke of undocumented aliens "self-deporting."

Ryan, though, has endorsed a broad approach to immigration reform by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) that could include a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants.

"You have to find a way of respecting the rule of law and acknowledging reality," said Ryan, who described himself as belonging to the party's "pro-growth" wing on immigration. "At the end of the day, I don't think it's in our interest as a nation to have a European-type system, where you have two classes, people who aspire to be citizens and can become them and people who aspire to be citizens and never can become them. That's not good for our system, for our society, for our culture."

Ryan issued a statement before Obama's inauguration congratulating the president. But he blasted the inaugural address afterward, saying it gave short shrift to the nation's debt burden and mischaracterized GOP views on entitlements.

"He's honest to his ideology," Ryan said of Obama. "He is a liberal progressive. He says so, and I believe he thinks what he's doing is the right thing to do. I disagree fundamentally about that, but I don't have ill will toward the man. But I just don't think, based upon watching his behavior, he's interested in getting to know us better and relating to us and working with us."


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