Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on Saturday warned that President Obama was working to delegitimize the Republican Party, and urged conservatives not to fall into the president’s trap by playing the villain.
“[Obama] needs to delegitimize the Republican Party—and House Republicans, in particular,” Ryan told conservatives at the National Review Institute Summit in Washington, D.C. “He’ll try to divide us with phony emergencies and bogus deals. He’ll try to get us to fight with each other—to question each other’s motives—so we don’t challenge him.
Prudence in picking political battles and caution in governing - characteristics that were not trademarks of Republicans in the 112th Congress - were central to Ryan’s speech.
Ryan used the ‘fiscal-cliff’ deal struck at the final hour as an example of the need to relinquish some principles by embracing imperfect legislation to score a modest victory.
“That means we’ll face some tough moments—like the fiscal cliff,” Ryan said. “I know we all didn’t see eye to eye on that vote, but here’s how I saw it… 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.”
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) faced a revolt among some rank and file for negotiating with the administration, but he had Ryan’s support for the final deal. Ryan on Saturday defended his vote.
“That’s not to hide from the fact that this bill wasn’t perfect. We wanted to keep taxes low for everyone. We wanted to cut spending. But this bill had to pass. Otherwise, every single taxpayer would have paid higher taxes. And our economy would have gone into a nosedive. Once I came to that conclusion, my decision was simple: If you think a bill has to pass, then you vote for it.”
Ryan’s speech struck a similar note to one struck by Boehner earlier this week. Boehner said it was the president’s goal to “annihilate” the Republican Party, and that the GOP needed to pick its battles wisely to avert Obama’s offensive.
“We’re going to have to make some big decisions about how we as a party take on this challenge,” Boehner said. “Where’s the ground that we fight on? Where’s the ground that we retreat on? Where are the smart fights? Where are the dumb fights that we have to stay away from? We’ve got a lot of big decisions to make.”
House Republicans backed away from a showdown with Obama over the debt ceiling on Wednesday, passing legislation that suspends the cap on government borrowing through May 18.
That’s part of a new strategy from House Republicans to embrace a minority posture in the face of Obama’s reelection. Rather than trying to force measures through the Democratic-led Senate, House GOP leaders are looking to achieve modest victories while serving as a check on Obama’s agenda.
“I’m not saying we should be excessively cautious,” Ryan continued. “When we see an opening—however small—we should take it. What I’m saying is, if we want to promote conservatism, we’ll need to use every tool at our disposal. Sometimes, we’ll have to reject the president’s proposals. And sometimes, we’ll have to make them better.”
Despite the message of caution, Ryan struck an aggressive tone on Saturday, portraying Obama as a cunning, manipulative and dangerous foe.
“The president will bait us. He’ll portray us as cruel and unyielding,” Ryan said. “Just the other day, he said Republicans had 'suspicions' about Social Security. He said we had 'suspicions' about feeding hungry children. He said we had 'suspicions' about caring for the elderly. Look, it’s the same trick he plays every time: Fight a straw man. Avoid honest debate. Win the argument by default.”
“We can’t get rattled,” he continued. “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.”