At a point when the Republican presidential race is veering off course once more, the party’s most prominent Congressional star, Paul Ryan, could have used his featured speaking slot at the Conservative Political Action Conference to talk up the remaining contenders.
Instead, the House Budget Committee chairman gave a Thursday night speech that suggested Republicans are running the wrong race this year, and that none too subtly positioned him as the party’s man on a white horse. And if the message was not blunt enough, he compared his approach and his vision to that of conservative icon Ronald Reagan.
“We only have nine months to defeat Barack Obama—nine months to reject his agenda of debt, doubt, and decline. And while defeating this president is necessary to getting America back on track, it is hardly sufficient,” declared Ryan, who spoke at the Washington, DC, conference where a chastened Mitt Romney (the “front-runner” who has lost more states than he has won), Rick Santorum (the latest “Anyone-But-Romney”) and Newt Gingrich (Moon colonist) will try to get traction with conservatives.
But Ryan wasn’t helping anyone get moving toward the nomination. Except, perhaps, himself.
Though Ryan regularly says he is “probably not” a prospect for a place on the GOP’s 2012 national ticket—as a vice presidential candidate or even the choice of a brokered convention—he was not giving as assist to Romney or any of the other last men standing in the Republican field.
The man, whom more than a few conservative pundits continue to tout as a potential convention alternative to a field of failed contenders, was preening and positioning before a worried crowd of the nation’s most influential conservatives. And he got some notice. Indeed, the full text of the congressman’s CPAC speech was posted within minutes of its delivery on the website of the conservative National Review magazine. And video of the speech was everywhere on the web by Friday morning.
“Put simply,” said Ryan, “Americans deserve a choice—and it is our responsibility to offer them one. They deserve an opportunity, not just to divert from the president’s path to decline but to affirm a reform agenda that restores our bedrock of founding principles.”
At points in his well received speech, Ryan was explicit in expressing disappointment with his own party’s unfocused message.
We know that this election cannot be just a referendum on President Obama’s failed leadership.
“Americans deserve a choice—a choice between two dramatically different visions for our country’s future. As conservatives, we owe Americans that choice,” declared Ryan. “Look, I know there are people in this town who are terrified at the prospect of an election with real alternative visions at stake. ‘Make it a referendum. Win by default,’ they say. Just oppose—we can win that way. Don’t propose bold ideas—that’s too risky. I’ll admit, the easy way is always tempting. But my friends, if that’s all we stand for, then what are we doing at here CPAC—the place where so many giants of our movement came to advance their boldest ideas?”
As he has for months, Ryan argued that there’s “a moral case for going bold” on issues like replacing Medicare with a voucher scheme and beginning the process of privatizing Social Security.
“But,” he added, “there is also a strong political case for going bold.”
And this is where Ryan went for the gold.
“The times call for leaders who understand the depth of the problems we face, and who offer far-reaching reforms equal to the challenges. In 1980, Ronald Reagan offered supply-side economics at home and a rollback of Soviet Communism abroad,” said the budget committee chair, whom The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol and Stephen Hayes keep pushing as a potential “solution” candidate for Republicans who thought Romney was a loser even before he started losing.
“The challenges this time? They’re different. But the moment calls for the same kind of boldness,” continued Ryan. “Everybody knows this is politically risky territory. Republicans have their battle scars on entitlement reform. That’s why some argue that we should downplay bold agendas and simply wage a campaign focused solely on the President and his party. I firmly disagree. Boldness and clarity offer the greatest opportunity to create a winning coalition. We will not only win the next election—we have a unique opportunity to sweep and remake the political landscape.”
Is Paul Ryan really the candidate who can “remake the political landscape”?
Not by most logical measures. Polling suggests Americans associate him with threats to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
A lot of Americans have started to recognize that, as Esquire’s Charles Pierce so gently explains it: “Paul Ryan is…a remarkably accomplished bullshit artist.”
But that’s not a spoiler for the CPAC crowd.
In fact, Ryan recognized that he was talking to a crowd that has a taste for nonsense—especially when it is served up by political players who are better looking, more articulate and more unyielding in their beliefs than the alternatives.
Hence that reference to Reagan and the announcement that “the moment calls for the same kind of boldness.”
Make no mistake: Paul Ryan was not suggesting that Mitt Romney is going to deliver that “boldness.”
Everything about Paul Ryan’s speech suggested that he was trying to get the crowd hear the name “Reagan” and think “Ryan.”