Obama, Ryan Take Partisan Paths as '16 Vote Nears

Obama, Ryan Take Partisan Paths as '16 Vote Nears
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President Obama and House Speaker Paul Ryan each explored some history this week. And they both argued that bold policies should outshine political theater any day of the week.

But from there, the two men parted company, spurning their own high-minded advice in favor of wooing their respective political tribes. Obama, whose job approval has hovered for months in the mid-40s, still dominates his party and can set an agenda that the Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, has been shadowing during the primary season. Ryan, on the other hand, fears Republican lawmakers and candidates remain far from cohesive.

“We’ve got to go on offense, big and bold – specific agenda and vision in 2016 – and let the country choose, because the kind of an election we have to have is a mandate election,” the new speaker said during a radio interview with conservative Hugh Hewitt. “If we … win that election, then we have the moral authority and the mandate and the ability for people to hold us accountable for actually putting it into place.”

Ryan’s concept of a “mandate election” is a throwback to the Contract with America, which helped the GOP win House control beginning in 1995 under the leadership of Newt Gingrich. The aura of rallying around a set of policies, cloaked as a “contract” with the electorate, helped dig Republicans out of the political wilderness in the House, where they’d languished for four decades. 

Republicans now control the House and Senate, but they want the White House, too. And to expand control to the executive branch, Ryan believes Republicans would be advised to embrace a set of accessible and “bold” policy concepts, rather than ricochet past what he calls intraparty “spats.”

Looking back at the period when he became a young congressman from Wisconsin in the waning years of Bill Clinton’s presidency, Ryan recalls when policy and party cohesion, however brief or ragged, was seen as a winning formula. The GOP pledged to pass 10 bills in 100 days, including family tax relief, robust national defense spending, and Social Security changes.

Almost two decades later, Ryan is devoted to similar conservative themes, and he relishes drawing contrasts with Democrats and especially with President Obama.

“Obama ran on vague platitudes,” he said this week, arguing that Republicans risk succumbing to a similar, albeit more conservative temptation. “He was tonally a moderate and then he went hard left.”

Ryan, who pronounced Obama untrustworthy because the president turned to executive deportation waivers in lieu of immigration legislation blocked in Congress, believes Republicans should define how conservative governance would work and create an echo chamber around that message into November 2016. 

“What does an Obamacare replacement look like? What’s the tax reform look like? What does a strong military look like?” Ryan added.

Speaking over the last week to Democratic donors and party faithful, the president mocked GOP presidential candidates and lawmakers in Congress, casting them as cynics, pessimists, science deniers, and peddlers of antiquated ideas.

Obama, defending his record as president, anticipated where the new speaker might be heading, at least rhetorically.

“They want to repeal the Affordable Care Act – I know that's shocking – and kick millions of people off their health insurance,” the president said Monday. “But when you ask them, ‘Well, what is it that is so bothering you about people having health insurance?’ they can't tell you – because originally it was, ‘Well, it's never going to work.’  All right, then it started working.”

With climate change, which the administration is tackling internationally and domestically, Obama casts conservatives as scientifically befuddled, knowing he will win the sympathies of his Democratic audiences. Polls show that a majority of progressives put climate change high on their lists of important issues, while a small minority of Republican voters feels the same way. 

“The planet is warming; 99 percent of scientists have said it’s warming,” Obama said this week. “And we've got the Republican chairman of the Senate Energy and Environment Committee carrying a snowball into the Senate chambers to show that there is still snow and that climate change isn't happening. I am not making that up.”

On a roll during the same event, the president lampooned GOP presidential candidates who have joined some Democrats in criticizing the administration’s strategy to battle Islamic State fighters in Syria, noting that candidates’ bravado on the stump appeared to contrast with their objections to how CNBC moderators handled last week’s GOP debate questioning in Colorado.

 “I don't want to keep on going, but have you noticed that every one of these candidates say, `Obama is weak. Putin is kicking sand in his face. When I talk to Putin, he’s going to straighten out,’” Obama said to laughter and applause. “And then it turns out they can't handle a bunch of CNBC moderators at a debate … If you can't handle those guys, you know, then I don't think the Chinese and the Russians are going to be too worried about you.”

Obama and Ryan are each using partisanship, not collaboration, to motivate voters to turn out at the polls a year from now. Each is framing possible legislation in 2017 that appeals to a deeply divided electorate. Obama uses immigration and income inequality; Ryan touts reforms aimed at taxes, the Affordable Care Act, and the federal debt.

The president believes a Democratic successor will defend achievements during his two terms and add to the Obama legacy he has begun to define with long lists woven into his speeches. Ryan, in turn, has begun to make Obama’s boasts part of a narrative he hopes will help him lead a raucous House GOP majority.

What divides the two parties is the terrain the two men are exploring, not issues – trade, criminal justice reform, transportation – on which the parties may yet come to agreement.

“The reason this election is so important is we have to be able to protect the gains we’ve made,” Obama argued on Monday. “And we all know that we’ve got so much work to do.” 

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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