Paul Ryan Has a Plan, But No One Is Listening

Donald Trump’s oafish hegemony over the news cycle leaves little room for the House speaker’s earnest pleas to talk about congressional policy.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

How do you put a crowd of congressional interns to sleep? Gather them in the cool, quiet serenity of the Capitol’s Statuary Hall and have them sit for an hour while a parade of House members delivers more or less the same speech over and over and over again.

OK, technically, the audience at Thursday’s rollout of the fourth piece of Speaker Paul Ryan’s “A Better Way” agenda—this one on how Congress must reclaim its constitutional authority—did not actually doze off. But as the event ground on, many visibly zoned out or turned their attentions to texting or perusing Snapchat. At one point, the young woman next to me (one of a trio of interns from Representative Joe Wilson’s office) stopped bothering to glance up from her phone when it came time to applaud; she’d simply clap in the general direction of the podium, eyes glued to the screen balanced on her lap. After the event, I listened to a pack of interns laughing about how it wasn’t until Ryan took the podium in the closing five minutes that people had stopped dorking around on their phones and started paying attention and snapping photos.

To be fair, it was a crushingly dull affair. Congressional powers as delineated in Article One of the U.S. Constitution is not the most scintillating of topics. Compounding the challenge, many rank-and-file House members are not the most enthralling orators. This was particularly true Thursday, with way too many lawmakers on hand to sing the same basic notes: The Constitution rocks, unelected bureaucrats are bad, and executive overreach is ruining America. Only the examples of regulatory outrage varied, based on each speaker’s home district: Keith Rothfus of Pennsylvania’s 12th denounced the burdens on coal plants; Doug Collins of Georgia’s 9th talked about poultry-farming regulations; Bradley Byrne of Alabama’s 1st bemoaned the tightening of red-snapper season; French Hill of Arkansas’s 2nd shredded the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water Rule; and so on, for 15, 16, 17 speeches. As the logic goes in Congress: Why have just three or four lawmakers explain a proposal when a dozen or more will happily hold forth for the cameras? Which guarantees redundancy and tedium, but makes perfect sense when you consider that Ryan’s entire “A Better Way” project is a grand exercise in messaging that, in addition to positioning his conference as the party of ideas, is also meant to give individual members a chance to impress the voters back home with all the deep policy thinking they’ve done.

Except that, thus far, Ryan’s beloved agenda—the one his wonkish heart has been dreaming of and laboring over and counting on to define his speakership—has been something of a PR bust, yet another sad casualty of this election cycle’s Trumpsanity.

Just look at what happened at the rollout of the agenda’s first plank: Ryan’s pet anti-poverty plan. The speaker and seven colleagues crossed the Anacostia River to commune with the impoverished, overwhelmingly minority residents from the “bad” side of Washington. But after all the speechifying, the only thing reporters wanted to talk about was Donald Trump’s latest outrage, regarding the Mexican heritage of Judge Gonzalo Curiel. And so the big news to come rolling out of the event was Ryan’s “textbook” racism comment.

“The first six questions were about Trump,” AshLee Strong, Ryan’s spokesman recalled to me. The leader’s office has come to expect that sort of thing, she admitted. “Still, it seemed like an odd time to be hammering at Trump.”

For the second rollout (theme: national security), Ryan wasn’t taking any chances. He held the June 9 event at the Council on Foreign Relations, and lawmakers did not take questions from the press, only members of the council. But even then (and despite Ryan’s best efforts), the topic du jour was Trump, and the news stories to emerge focused not on the difference between Republicans’ governing vision and a Democratic one—which is kinda the whole point of the “A Better Way” theme—but on the gulf between Ryan and his own party’s presidential nominee. (With both White House contenders at odds with the Republican congressional vision, how exactly are voters supposed to reach “A Better Way”?)

Five days later, rollout No. 3 (“tackling excessive regulations”) was held on the West Lawn of the Capitol. The assembled lawmakers did their thing, and then Ryan took four questions, only the last of which had anything to do with regulation. Two questions were about Trump, one of which the speaker refused to address altogether. The event generated no buzz—unlike Ryan’s press conference that day, in which he rejected Trump’s call for a ban on Muslim immigrants. That definitely got people’s attention.

Then there was the Statuary Hall event, rollout No. 4, featuring by far the most esoteric topic in “A Better Way.” Ryan’s only participation in the hour-long presentation was to deliver brief closing remarks. There were no questions asked or answered by anyone. The Ryan-themed news of that day: His later assertion that he currently does not intend to un-endorse Trump.

At this rate, Ryan should consider not even bothering to prepare remarks for the rollouts of the final two agenda pieces (health care and taxes). He might as well just wait and see what kind of verbal atrocities Trump commits during those news cycles.

For its part, the House speaker’s office is putting on a happy face. Strong pointed out that, the same week “A Better Way” was introduced, Senate Democrats announced that they were putting forward their own policy agenda. It was characterized in the media as though they’re “chasing House Republicans,” she told me. “You know you’re cutting through when Chuck Schumer feels he needs to respond.” Similarly, said Strong, House Democrats have felt compelled to “re-up” their “Make It In America” plan. So clearly, they too want to avoid letting Ryan claim the policy high ground.

But here again: Ryan and his conference aren’t really competing for attention with Democrats. They are struggling to claim even the tiniest bit of oxygen from a Republican nominee often at direct odds with their ideas. (Not that Trump is running on policy or even ideology so much as charisma and spleen.) It’s hard enough getting people to embrace complicated policy debates in normal times. How the heck is Ryan supposed to get anyone focused on reform when there is a trash-talking, thin-skinned, bomb-throwing carnival barker busy turning the presidential race into the political equivalent of The Jersey Shore? It just ain’t gonna happen.

Which, in the long run, may work out just fine for the speaker. Ryan’s labors as a wonkish Sisyphus—shoving his policy boulder up the hill only to have it crash back down every time the Donald opens his yap—will only fuel his image as the sober, determined, thoughtful foil to Trump’s garish, empty demagoguery. And once Trumpsanity is finally over, well, who’s to say how Ryan will choose to use his new juice?

After its scorching affair with Trump, Republican voters may well find themselves ready for a more boring suitor—one whose idea of sexy talk involves an in-depth critique of Article One authority.