Different playbooks for Ryan, McConnell in wild 2016

Different playbooks for Ryan, McConnell in wild 2016
© Greg Nash

Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDemocrats slide in battle for Senate McConnell and wife confronted by customers at restaurant Pelosi, Schumer: Trump 'desperate' to put focus on immigration, not health care MORE and Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPelosi, Schumer: Trump 'desperate' to put focus on immigration, not health care Trump urges Dems to help craft new immigration laws: ‘Chuck & Nancy, call me!' Sanders, Harris set to criss-cross Iowa MORE have adopted strikingly different approaches to leading their party in a turbulent election year dominated by Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrats slide in battle for Senate Trump believes Kushner relationship with Saudi crown prince a liability: report Christine Blasey Ford to be honored by Palo Alto City Council MORE.

The result is a Republican Party as rudderless as it has been in decades. Trump has zigzagged over the policy landscape in his presidential bid, putting more pressure on party leaders to define what the GOP stands for as it seeks to keep its congressional majorities.


Ryan, the House Speaker, is pushing an ambitious agenda he calls Confident America. McConnell, the Senate majority leader, has stuck to a game plan of passing small-bore bills, giving his vulnerable colleagues wide latitude to frame their candidacies as independently as possible in what could be a tough cycle for Republicans.

There is no playbook for this type of election year, which has stumped pundits and taken unprecedented twists and turns. Trump has been at odds with the chairman of the Republican National Committee, while McConnell (R-Ky.) and Ryan (R-Wis.) took aim at the real estate mogul in December after he announced his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States.

In prior cycles, congressional leaders have let their presidential nominee speak for the party on the major issues of the day, and define the Senate and House campaigns. But GOP strategists say Trump’s unorthodox stances on national security, entitlement reform and healthcare, as well as trade and immigration — two of the front-runner’s signature issues — make that impossible.

Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster who advised Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioO'Rourke's rise raises hopes for Texas Dems down ballot Meghan McCain calls Russian attacks against her father the 'highest compliment' to her family The Memo: Saudi storm darkens for Trump MORE’s (R-Fla.) presidential campaign, said, “Donald Trump’s policy positions are not just inconsistent with a lot of Republican platforms in the past but diametrically opposed to a lot of Republican platforms in the past. It remains an open question whether other Republicans who have run on some version of those policy proposals are willing to throw them over because their nominee does.”

Trump has pledged to “do everything within my power not to touch Social Security,” putting him to the left of where President Obama has been in recent years; called for the restructuring of NATO, an alliance that has been a central pillar of national security policy for decades; and in the fall appeared to voice support for some resembling a ­single-payer healthcare plan, telling “60 Minutes,” “I am going to take care of everybody.”

Trump’s unconventional policies have drawn some Democrats and independents to his campaign, but many Republican lawmakers facing reelection don’t want him speaking for them.

“Let’s assume he wraps up the nomination; the question then really becomes to what extent are we going to follow tradition and simply turn the entire convention and the party over to the nominee. That’s something that we’ve always done in the past,” said Vin Weber, a GOP strategist who advised the presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney and George W. Bush in 2012 and 2004, respectively.

“I think that’s a much more open question this time than in the past,” he added.

As it becomes increasingly likely that Trump will become the party’s standard-bearer, McConnell and Ryan are under pressure to find a way to protect the GOP brand. “This is a year when Republican congressional candidates are not going to want Trump to be their spokesperson. He is too polarizing and his negatives are too high,” said Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

Ryan, who is 46 and has a well-known appetite for complex policy papers and grueling gym workouts, is throwing himself at the problem. He is putting together an ambitious five-point national Republican agenda that he hopes to roll out in the next several weeks.

Usually, these types of campaign-geared agendas are released years without a presidential election, such as the GOP’s Contract with America in 1994. It remains to be seen if Ryan’s road map will be able to get much attention in a raucous presidential cycle.

House Republicans have been soliciting policy ideas from constituents at town hall gatherings and other meetings at home. Many of those ideas have been shared at GOP conference meetings and sorted by task forces that Ryan created.

The full platform will be made public before lawmakers leave Washington in mid-July for the presidential nominating conventions and a long summer recess. It will address national security, jobs and economic growth, ObamaCare, poverty and the president’s growing use of executive authority. 

Notably, Ryan has left immigration reform — an issue that splits his party — off the list.

The concept behind Ryan’s policy platform was largely borne out of his experience as Romney’s vice presidential running mate in 2012. By the time the party had settled on a nominee late in the cycle, Ryan has said, it was too late for the GOP to rally around a specific set of policy solutions and make its case to voters.

McConnell, who is 74, soft-spoken and known for problem-solving without leaving fingerprints, isn’t buying into this approach, according to Senate GOP aides. Part of the reason is that McConnell is shepherding a fragile majority in the Senate; Ryan has the largest Republican majority since the Great Depression.

The Kentucky leader voiced general support for Ryan’s vision at a joint Senate-House Republican retreat in January, but his strategy is to let Senate Republican candidates define their own races without too much central planning from the leadership offices.

McConnell plans to spend the weeks until the Republican National Convention focused on the plodding work of passing spending bills, instead of tackling hot-button issues. In 2015, however, the GOP-led House and Senate was able to pass thorny bills into law, including measures on Medicare physician reimbursements, transportation, taxes and energy.

David Popp, a spokesman for the majority leader, said, “Since January, the Leader and the Speaker have worked together to advance a policy agenda that includes bills to address jobs, the economy, national security and the opiates crisis. And unlike the previous leadership, he’s empowered the committees to develop legislation, and the results have been significant accomplishments. Their issue development will continue as Republicans prepare for new leadership in the White House.”

In a memo circulated in September, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is the campaign arm tasked with keeping the GOP majority in the upper chamber, stated, “It is certain that all GOP candidates will be tied in some way to our nominee, but we need not be tied to him so closely that we have to engage in permanent cleanup of distancing maneuvers.”

“Don’t get drawn into every Trump statement and every Trump dust-up. Keep the focus on your own campaign,” the memo advised.

GOP aides emphasized this week, however, that the memo was drafted months before even the first primary contest, saying the strategy is not a recent reaction to Trump’s success.