"Prudence," House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan advised a gathering of conservatives on Saturday, "is good judgment in the art of governing." For the eight-term congressman, the word won't just guide the battles he and the House Republicans pick with President Obama in his second term, which was Ryan's message in a speech to the National Review Institute. It's also a model for how he will treat the specter of the 2016 election, opting to promote party unity to prove his leadership bona fides rather than carving out a distinct identity from his potential opponents.
Ryan has settled back into his role as a leader among House Republicans, at ease playing the inside Washington game and using the speech to call for party unity. He reminded the GOP that Democrats are the real political enemy, cautioning they are reinvigorated after President Obama's progressive inaugural address.
"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," Ryan said of the president's address that implied Republicans want to balance the budget on the backs of the poor.
The advice comes after House Republicans split during the fiscal cliff vote when only 85 conference members--Ryan included--voted with House Speaker John Boehner on the deal and more recently when the conference divided over Hurricane Sandy aid, with conservatives arguing the country couldn't afford the nearly $51 billion package. The advice also previews contentious policy battles to come that could split the conference, such as immigration reform. Ryan's point was the party might have lost the election, but it's far from powerless.
"The fact is, we’re not in the wilderness. Republicans control both the House and most of the statehouses. So we have to oppose the president and the Senate on some fronts—and engage them on others—because we can’t let our country have a debt crisis," Ryan said.
Ryan, who's mentioned as a possible 2016 presidential candidate, looked comfortable in his role as congressional leader. Far from singling himself out as the future of the party, he heaped praise on Republican governors who are also potential candidates.
"Today, the frontlines of reform are the states. That’s where Republicans will see their greatest success—thanks to governors like Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, Susana Martinez, Chris Christie, Bob McDonnell, Mike Pence, and others," he said.
Part of the comeback strategy Ryan proposed to his fellow lawmakers was to get out in front of Democrats and offer policy alternatives rather than merely block the ones put forward on the other side of the aisle. For many of his younger colleagues, who have found the word "no" to be their greatest asset in Washington, it's a gentle nudge toward a different style of governing. But it's not a strategy shift for him: This is the playbook Ryan has been using since he became the ranking member on the House Budget Committee in 2007 and began writing his own proposals. His "Roadmap for America's Future" became the "Path to Prosperity" budget for the House when Republicans took back the majority after the 2010 elections.
The underlying message in that piece of advice is that Ryan's active approach to policymaking did not cost former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney the White House in 2012. The way Ryan tells it, voters just haven't yet experienced the "tepid growth and deficits, health care price controls and rationing" that are on the horizon as the Affordable Care Act is implemented.
That's the moment he is preparing for, when he suggests the White House will be ripe for the taking. "We will be ready. We will offer an alternative vision. We will explain how our vision differs, how it rests on vibrant communities, how it increases social mobility. We will show how we can govern better by governing closer to the people, by strengthening our families and their livelihoods. And we will make clear that we have better ideas to combat poverty."
That is the new Ryan playbook to woo the electorate. He'll talk about the need to "protect and strengthen" social safety net programs, as he did Saturday, but instead of dwelling on those reforms and getting lost in the weeds as he has in the past he'll put them in the context of a grand societal renewal that he thinks will broaden the popularity of his ideas with the public.
"We will win back the trust of the American people," he promised. "And we will put our plans into action." That starts with trust, action and a little kumbaya within his own party.