It’s a promise that Republicans have made in general since the law was enacted in 2010 and as recently as 2014, when then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor promised that the House would vote on a full replacement for Obamacare by the end of the year. That pledge went the way of Cantor himself, who lost his primary and resigned from Congress before he could deliver on it. Ryan may be less vulnerable to electoral defeat, but he’ll face the same political headwinds that for years have stymied Republican attempts to unify around a detailed health-care proposal.
For one, he is presiding over the same fractured conference that bedeviled his predecessor, John Boehner. Sure, many lawmakers may be afraid to take a tough vote that will give Democrats ammunition to attack them, but the bigger reason Republicans haven’t acted on a replacement for Obamacare is that 218 of them can’t agree on what it would look like. Second, Ryan’s status as the de facto leader of the GOP will last only another few months, until Republicans settle on a presidential nominee. Whether it’s Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, or someone else, the party standard-bearer will have a lot to say about how aggressive Republicans in Congress are as the election approaches. Ryan’s approach might also face resistance among senior Republican senators, who know that unlike the party’s relatively safe majority in the House, the balance of power in the Senate after 2016 will be determined in a handful of swing states.
Ryan’s call for a confident GOP extended to policy areas beyond health care. He urged conservatives to advance a long-debated overhaul of the tax code that cuts rates and closes loopholes. “All I can say is we will not be cowed,” Ryan said. “We are not here to smooth things over. We are here to shake things up.” The new speaker pushed for action on an issue he has embraced as a personal cause in recent years: reforming the nation’s anti-poverty apparatus in a way that consolidates federal programs, gives more power to the states, and incentivizes welfare recipients to seek work without the risk that they lose all government support.
The more assertive approach drew praise from Heritage Action, a conservative group that emerged as a chief critic of former Speaker Boehner. Michael Needham, the group’s president, said in a statement after the speech that Heritage Action “strongly supports Speaker Ryan’s commitment to lay out a bold agenda.”
We agree with him that saving America will require an electoral mandate, not just electoral victory. And we applaud his recognition of the unholy alliance between big government and big special interests.
Ryan is pushing Republicans to be bolder, but he’s not ignoring politics altogether. Two policy proposals given noticeably short shrift in his 25-minute speech at the Library of Congress were his contentious plans to partially privatize Medicare and turn Medicaid into a block-grant program in the states. Those ideas were centerpieces of the budget blueprints that he authored, but they were subject to relentless attacks from Democrats, and Ryan gave no indication that they would be priorities for the House GOP in 2016.