Ryan-Priebus Ties Seen Benefiting GOP in 2016
Born two years apart and growing up separated by just 70 miles of Wisconsin highway, Paul Ryan and Reince Priebus have been friends for decades.
They text often, root for the Green Bay Packers (they sat together at the 2011 Super Bowl), and talk over a beer -- both preferring Wisconsin brews although Ryan favors Miller Lite and Priebus Miller High Life.
Now, in their roles as speaker of the House and chairman of the Republican National Committee, the Badger State duo are using their friendship, common ideologies and shared lessons from the failed 2012 presidential campaign to shape the 2016 election and put a Republican in the White House.
RealClearPolitics spoke with both men and several of their friends and colleagues to explore how they are forging the Republican agenda.
Ryan and Priebus took divergent paths to political prominence. Ryan rose through elected office, running for Congress when he was just 28 and moving up via the House Budget Committee and Ways and Means Committee, ultimately becoming the highest-elected Republican in the country when he was elected speaker last year. Priebus rose through the party infrastructure, working his way up the Wisconsin GOP to lead a state resurgence before trying to do the same as the national party’s top official.
For Priebus, much of the 2016 process is already complete or underway: orchestrating the debate schedule and managing the primary, which officially begins with the Iowa caucus in less than two weeks. For Ryan, the work is still in the planning stages: bold policy initiatives meant to lay a strong Republican agenda for the general election.
The two friends will be critical to Republicans’ chances in November.
Ryan, who will soon turn 46, was born in Janesville, Wis., and Priebus, 43, was born two years later in New Jersey but moved in boyhood to Wisconsin, just east in Kenosha. Ryan went to college in Ohio and became a congressional aide in Washington after graduating, while Priebus went to school in Wisconsin and law school in Miami, before returning to his home state.
They connected in 1997, when Priebus was home from law school for the summer and Ryan was preparing for his first run for Congress. Many Republicans in the state were surprised Ryan was running for the House – in fact, state Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, then a freshman but now the majority leader, was tasked with convincing him (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) to run for state Senate instead.
After Ryan won, his ties with Priebus became closer. Ryan told RCP he asked Priebus to be the GOP chairman for his congressional district, which he did for several years before becoming the state party chair. Priebus’ old college roommate went on to become Ryan’s longtime chief of staff.
The two men are effusive in their praise of each other during those early years.
Ryan said his friend was “basically the architect” of the Republican takeover of Wisconsin elective offices, which included gaining state Senate and House majorities, several congressional seats, and the governorship and a U.S. Senate seat in 2010. Priebus told RCP he was “always lucky and fortunate to have this star to promote in an otherwise pretty dismal Republican place.”
They reconnected professionally when Priebus took over the RNC in 2011 and tapped Ryan to run the Presidential Trust (the board in charge of the money the RNC spends on presidential campaigns). They worked even more closely when Ryan was selected as the party’s vice presidential nominee the following summer.
While their working relationship dates back nearly two decades, the two are also close friends. They text often and occasionally meet in Priebus’ office – the RNC headquarters is just two blocks from the U.S. Capitol. They often talk about their families, their beloved Packers and, unsurprisingly, politics.
Those close to them say both are quintessential Wisconsinites: down-to-earth, hardworking, Packer-loving men you can get a beer with.
When Speaker John Boehner announced his retirement last September, Ryan immediately took his name out of the running to replace him. But when Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy dropped out of the race, Republicans in and out of the House coalesced around Ryan as their leader. Priebus was among those who privately urged him to take the job.
“He basically gave me the duty-honor-country speech and more or less said the moment is so dire and we need you to do this for the cause,” Ryan told RCP of his conversations with Priebus.
Priebus said he also made the argument to Ryan that in order to have the impact he’d always envisioned – crafting tax policy through the Ways and Means Committee – he would be best served taking the speakership. The impact on the party at large, and in the 2016 election, was also a key factor. Priebus said Ryan understood that without functional House leadership, there would be “big problems in 2016.”
“Because of Paul’s willingness to step in and fill that major piece of the puzzle,” Priebus said, “we’re able to be a big, mature party, which is what we have to do."
Republicans agree that having an RNC chairman and speaker of the House who are close personally and professionally is a major boost to the party. Wisconsin Rep. Sean Duffy, one of Ryan’s closest friends in the chamber, said the speaker’s relationship with Priebus will help when issues inevitably arise.
“When there are disagreements to come up, it’s easier to work through them because there’s a friendship and a trust that you can fall back on,” Duffy said.
Preparing for 2016
Since becoming speaker in October, Ryan has talked extensively about a bold agenda for House Republicans this year, including broad policy proposals ranging from tax and welfare reform to a replacement for the Affordable Care Act. The agenda is intended to put a congressional stamp on the presidential election, laying out policies that create a contrast with Democrats and pave the way for the eventual Republican nominee. One of Ryan’s favorite phrases since becoming speaker is that the GOP needs to be “a proposition party, not just an opposition party.”
He said he didn’t consult Priebus when crafting plans for the agenda, but the two have talked about it. Priebus said the focus actually harkens back to discussions they had long before Ryan took the top job in the House about the direction of the GOP and the need to clearly lay out what they stand for.
“Paul’s piece of the pie now is making sure that when people see the behavior of Congress, that people see leadership and a vision that says, ‘That’s something I can sign up for,’” Priebus said. “You can’t have total dysfunction in the Congress and expect people to say, ‘That’s great, let’s just keep doing that plan.’ Paul understands that that plan doesn’t sell out on Main Street and he’s doing something to fix it."
Duffy said that with the presidential candidates focused on winning the primary, there’s little in-depth discussion of serious policy, and when they do get into details, it’s only in short hits at the debates.
“Look at the candidates, they’re not so policy-driven. There’s policy there but the point where we’re talking about people’s shoes and people’s energy level, some of the stuff is not the highest intellectual conversation,” Duffy said. “We’re different in that we are able to really think through and lay out in-depth policy about where we want to see the country and how we’re going to fix it. We really have a lot of meat on the bone.”
Both Ryan and Priebus said the effort isn’t meant to be a counterweight to heated rhetoric coming from the GOP primary, mostly from frontrunner Donald Trump, but rather to complement the process and lay the groundwork for the general election. Ryan has said that if Trump is the nominee, he will support him, and he told RCP that he’s confident any of the candidates would be able to run alongside the agenda of congressional Republicans.
“I think they’re busy trying to win a primary distinguishing themselves among conservatives,” Ryan said. “We’re busy trying to form an agenda for the whole country so that the summer and the fall goes the right direction.”
Duffy said that the congressional agenda would do more than just provide a contrast with Democrats: It will invigorate volunteers and activists in the party. “If you don’t have someone doing that, I think it’s harder to get folks out to the doors and to the phones and to their pocketbooks,” he said.
Beyond their friendship, Ryan and Priebus have the shared experience of a losing presidential campaign. After President Obama’s re-election, the RNC chairman commissioned the “autopsy” of the campaign, saying at the time, “There's no one solution. There's a long list of them." Ryan spent the year following the loss visiting low-income communities to develop a plan of action to combat poverty, an issue he’s brought back to the forefront since becoming speaker.
The two have talked often about the lessons they took away from 2012 and the best way to apply them to this year’s election. From Ryan’s perspective, it’s about creating a general election strategy much earlier, which he felt hurt the campaign significantly four years ago.
“We both believe that it’s too late if you’re trying to inject issues into a campaign from late summer, that you’ve got to get that started faster and earlier if you want to make it about ideas,” Ryan said. “The way the nomination process and the convention process works doesn’t lend itself to doing that in time, so that’s why we believe we have to go faster, earlier, and that’s what we’re doing.”
From Priebus’ perspective, it was also about fixing the primary process, particularly the number of debates, and their free-for-all setup, of last cycle. Rick Wiley, the RNC’s political director in 2012 and Scott Walker’s campaign manager last year, credited Priebus with adding order to this election cycle.
“If we had a chairman in there right now who was brand-new, came in the chairman’s election in January of 2015 and tried to take the party through this with no knowledge of what 2012 was like, it would be a disaster right now,” Wiley said.
Ryan still has a long way to go before the policy agenda he envisions is put on paper, plus a tough climb to get it through the House this year. And for Priebus, voters are just now about to start casting their ballots in a primary that has been completely upended by Trump’s unexpected candidacy and surprising staying power atop the polls. Both have a long way to go to see if the lessons from 2012 and goals for this year will pay dividends.
“We want to leave it all on the field in 2016,” Ryan said.