Paul Ryan: We must get beyond 'politics of emotion'
In his new book, "The Way Forward," Paul Ryan critiques his own party, suggesting it needs to be more inclusive, more pragmatic and more positive.
The Janesville congressman and 2012 Republican vice-presidential candidate spoke to Journal Sentinel Washington Bureau Chief Craig Gilbert this week about the book. Here are excerpts from the interview:
Q: Your book talks about some things your party needs to do differently. What's the biggest political challenge facing the GOP?
A: Well, we are very good at criticizing because we don't like the direction the country is heading, but we have to do a better job at proposing solutions. And we have to show that we're not only the party of solutions but that we're the party for everybody. And so I think we have to be an inclusive party that welcomes people and has an agenda that is principled, solutions-oriented, that moves the country in the right direction and appeals to people based on their hopes and their aspirations.
Q: The implication in the book is that it's not Republican policies that get in the way of broadening the party's coalition but a lack of outreach, especially with respect to minority voters, and poor messaging. Is that the argument?
A: It is that, but it's also that we need to apply our principles more broadly to problems that we have not addressed well enough. So applying our principles to poverty is one thing (where) I think we need to focus our efforts so that we can give people meaningful choices. So it's more than just marketing or messaging, and it goes to offering solutions based on principles and showing people that we have better ideas, and then being willing to communicate those ideas everywhere. We cannot rely on an Electoral College strategy with a margin of error of one state.
Q: Does immigration reform have to pass before Republicans can improve their standing with Latino voters?
A: I think it is in some ways a gateway issue, and I think Latino voters need to know Republicans have solutions. I wouldn't say it has to pass, but I think we have to be seen as part of the solution.
Q: Why were you so surprised by losing the election? You write in the book that your wife Janna reminded you before the election that the public polls were a lot less promising for you than your internal polls. Some people were surprised that the Romney campaign was surprised.
A: Our turnout model proved to be wrong, but we didn't know that at the time. Based upon our turnout assumptions from the campaign we thought we were going to win.
Q: You write toward the end of the book that "we need to articulate our vision clearly and persuasively and then let the country choose. If we lose an election that way, then, well, at least we gave it our all. But I don't think that will happen." Didn't you make your case and give it your all in 2012?
A: I think we can do better because I think Mitt came out of the primary in May cash-strapped, unable to access his general (election) fund money until mid-August. The President carpet-bombed him in the targeted states, defining him before he had a chance to define himself, and so I think the power of incumbency stacked a lot of the odds against us. Therefore we did not have a sufficient chance to produce a multi-month "choice election"...We need a cleansing election where Americans really are choosing (between) two very clear paths...You can't start that in September, you have to start it a lot earlier than that.
Q: You say in the book that votes in Congress that look pure can pave the way for worse outcomes. Is there too much demand for ideological purity within the GOP today?
A: I don't think so. I think the fight we're having right now is over tactical disagreements, and I think there's a confusion between tactics and principles far too often today. And I think that signifies a lack of prudence. Prudence is good judgment in the art of governing and prudence is applying your principles and moving them as far as you can, when you can. Sometimes, it's a small step and sometimes it's a giant leap and sometimes we get confused (that) if we can only take a small step, that is somehow unprincipled, when really it's just a tactical...disagreement.
Q: So the problem is not so much ideological as it is some people are just too militant and uncompromising?
A: Yeah, I think you need to recognize the situations for what they are. For instance...we only control the House, we don't control the Senate or the White House...and so it can take time. And sometimes people want to have shortcuts around the Constitution — liberals are like this as well — when that's not the way the founder set the system up in the first place.
Q: You talk in the book about wondering in recent years whether Pres. Obama was a pragmatist or an ideologue, and you answer by concluding he's an ideologue. Is Paul Ryan a pragmatist or an ideologue?
A: I am an ideological person that tries to apply my ideology in a practical way using prudence...I think the President marketed himself as one thing and then became an entirely different person than who he said he would be. Whereas conservatives, our goal and challenge is to be as clear as possible with who we are, what we believe, what we're trying to do, I would argue that the Obama brand of liberal progressivism is sort of the opposite: use moderate language to sell very left-wing policies.
Q: You write of Obama at one point: "His policies represent an ideological mission to re-order the human condition through state action, empowering bureaucrats to decide what's best for everyone rather than allowing citizens to govern themselves." That sounds like something hardly anybody would vote for. Yet Obama got re-elected. Isn't your view of Obama much darker than that of the majority of voters?
A: Well, I think his rhetoric isn't clear as to what his policies produce...One of the challenges that Mitt and I had in 2012 was we felt we were sort of shadow-boxing against big government in theory...against Obama-care which had not yet been implemented, against things like Dodd-Frank which had not yet been implemented. But now in 2013 and 2014 we see big government in practice. We see what it actually looks like and it's very different than the rhetoric that was used to sell it...I think people are beginning to recognize that.
Q: You talk from time in the book about how polarized our politics is. You've obviously been living that and Wisconsin is a prime example. What do you think is driving this polarization in Congress, and among voters?
A: I think it's the politics of emotion. I think it's trying to sell ideas based purely on emotion. And I think it's the politics of tapping into darker emotions like fear, envy and anxiety. And I believe people are hungry for a different type of politics, which is not designed to motivate people based on fear, envy, or anxiety or anger, (but) to try to motivate people based upon their better emotions: hope, opportunity, aspirations...I think identity politics, which is the election craft of the left, and the president played it very well in the last election, talks to people in ways where they think of how they're divided from each other...we should focus on what unifies us.
Q: Do you think the politics of emotion is being practiced by both sides?
A: Yes, I do. That's why I'm not suggesting one side has got it all right and the other doesn't. I'm saying as conservatives, we need to appeal to positive emotions, hope and aspirations.
Q: You talk for the first time in your book about your father's alcoholism. Looking back, did that affect you in any enduring way?
A: It's nothing I ever really felt comfortable talking about before. It's something I didn't discuss for many, many years of my life. It gave me a sense of appreciating the problems families experience and the challenges that people have growing up or that families have with loved ones...My own experience with my dad, who was a great and decent guy who had these problems...has given me a sense of humility and empathy to those who have problems and have made mistakes.