Paul Ryan: The Republican anti-Trump?

Establishment Republicans have looked for someone to stand up to the Trump phenomenon. Speaker Paul Ryan could be taking on that mantle. 

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
House Speaker Paul Ryan speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington.

House Speaker Paul Ryan may not be running against Donald Trump in a presidential campaign, but he is fast emerging as the “anti-Trump” in the GOP. 

From style to rhetoric to ideology, Speaker Ryan is the closest thing Republicans have as a direct counter to Mr. Trump. If Trump is the hope of those who believe Washington – and the Republican Party – is broken beyond repair, then Speaker Ryan is perhaps the brightest hope of those who believe it can still work.

With his determinedly calm optimism and push for more inclusion, Ryan aims to influence presidential politics in 2016 while recasting the party as one of hope and promise.

The question is whether he will have any greater success than the Republican presidential field at a time when the American mood – particularly among many Republicans – appears to be rooted in frustration and doubt.

Ryan’s attempt to influence 2016 could be seen Tuesday night in the Republican rebuttal of President Obama’s State of the Union address by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. In an indirect riposte at Trumpism, she warned against the “siren call of the angriest voices.”

Ryan had a hand in selecting Governor Haley for the rebuttal.

It is only one example of how he is pushing a message of inclusiveness and opportunity that contrasts strikingly with Trump’s rhetoric. 

After the terrorist shootings in San Bernardino, Calif., in December, Ryan condemned Trump’s call to temporarily ban Muslim entrants. “This is not conservatism,” he said. “What was proposed … is not what this party stands for, and more importantly it’s not what this country stands for.”

But Trump isn’t only about negativity. His slogan is “Make America Great Again.” The appeal of some of Trump’s better-known proposals – from deporting undocumented immigrants to the Muslim ban – comes from their clarity, says David Winston, a GOP strategist advising the House and Senate leadership.

“Until somebody comes up and defines something else, people will say, ‘At least I know what Trump will do,’ “ he says. 

The problem for the Republican establishment is that Trump’s clarity is tailored to a narrow swath of the electorate. “Trump does, after all, have a positive agenda; it's just not one that is crafted to win over moderates, party establishment members, or swing voters,” says Matthew Green, an expert on the speakership at Catholic University in Washington, in an e-mail.

What Ryan can do is provide a different vision, says Mr. Winston. He can “interject ideas into the discourse, ideas that will drive the campaign.”

For example, Ryan has a particular interest in fighting poverty through private initiatives and by turning federal money back to the states. He pushed his ideas at an antipoverty forum for GOP hopefuls last weekend. (Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz were no-shows.)

And this week, when the speaker goes to Baltimore for a joint retreat with House and Senate Republicans, he is aiming to help shape a can-do agenda that will motivate voters this election cycle.

“We need to be inspirational, we need to be inclusive,” he said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Monday. “We care about opportunity, upward mobility.”

On one hand, Ryan’s attempt to set an agenda could help address the concerns of Trump’s “angry voters.” These voters are being misunderstood, says Winston, the GOP strategist.

“It’s not anger. That’s where the misinterpretation is. It’s frustration,” says Winston, who also does public opinion research. People are frustrated because no one is solving problems that matter to them, he says.

“What people are looking for is someone to articulate objectives … and then tell me how we’re going to get there,” he says.

Ryan is known as an “ideas” guy, but his vision contrasts with Trump's.

Ryan “sees part of his role as selling the Republican Party and its platform to the broader public,” says Kyle Kondik, political analyst and managing editor of “Sabato’s Crystal Ball.” “But I think Ryan’s idea of what the Republican platform is and what Trump’s idea is are two very different things.”

Trump, for one, wants to block Mr. Obama’s free trade deal with Pacific Rim countries; Ryan supports the Asia trade deal. While Trump warns against tinkering with Social Security and Medicare, Ryan wants to reform them, turning Medicare into a voucher system.

“Ryan has ideological goals, and Trump doesn’t. Frankly, Trump is not an economic conservative. That explains some of his appeal to the white working class,” says Mr. Kondik.

Observers acknowledge the anger among voters frustrated with low wages and worried about terrorist attacks. But some suggest that a message of optimism and a path forward can still work.

“The typical American voter still responds better to a message of hope, a positive message, than one of fear and negativity,” says David Canon, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

The reasons for Ryan’s desire to influence the 2016 campaign are clear, he adds. If it’s an establishment president, “there’s a pretty high likelihood that a fair amount of his agenda will get a favorable hearing.”

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