Why Paul Ryan Isn't Hardcore Enough for the Right

The potential House speaker isn't a fan of scorched-earth tactics, for one.

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Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

While some Republicans see Representative Paul Ryan as the “last hope” to become speaker of the House and restore order to the fractured congressional delegation, an influential faction of hardliners is not convinced he is conservative enough. 

The movement to paint Ryan as not conservative enough began almost immediately after Kevin McCarthy unexpectedly dropped out and Ryan's name was floated. So far, the anti-Ryan forces have been focussed on the following points. 

He's not a fan of scorched-earth tactics

The struggle between House Republican pragmatists and the 35 to 40 hardliners in the House Freedom Caucus is not about ideology—it's about tactics. Ryan has not advocated using the scorched-earth tactics the hard right embraces, such as permitting a government shutdown or debt default in pursuit of advancing the conservative agenda. 

“We have emasculated ourselves because we have pretty much conceded that we don't have the power of the purse,” said Representative Raúl Labrador of Idaho, a founding member of the Freedom Caucus, which continues to support Representative Daniel Webster for speaker.

The hardliners' votes are necessary to become speaker, and they aren't willing to get behind Ryan, or any other candidate, without extracting promises not to short-circuit normal procedures in order to keep the government functioning, as John Boehner often did.

“I think he's got to convince me and some other folks that if he were in charge that the place would be different,” Representative Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, a Freedom Caucus member, said on Fox News Sunday.

Ryan shares Boehner's view that shutdowns and debt defaults are not a viable way to govern. One example of Ryan's pragmatism occurred in 2013. After the government re-opened, and as Republican hawks rebelled against automatic military spending cuts, Ryan preempted a second showdown by cutting a two-year budget deal with Democrats; the far-right erupted with cries of surrender and 62 House Republicans voted against the compromise because it raised spending levels. It passed anyway.

He voted for Medicare Part D and the bank bailouts

Ryan's budget proposals in the Obama era are beloved by many in the conservative movement, but his right-wing credentials were less than sterling a decade ago. Conservative radio host Erick Erickson mentioned numerous measures Ryan voted for that are loathed by the small-government right.

“While in Congress, he voted for No Child Left Behind, the Prescription Drug Benefit, TARP, caps on CEO pay, the AIG bill, the GM bailout, the debt ceiling, and now the fiscal cliff,” Erickson wrote. “In fact, Paul Ryan is one of less than a dozen Republican congressmen to have voted for every bailout to come before Congress.”

For the faction of the party that demands purity, these votes aren't easily forgiven. “I love Paul, he's one of the smartest guys here. But back in 2008 there were a number of us that committed that we simply could not ever support a speaker who fought so hard to pass the Wall Street bailout,” said Representative Louie Gohmert of Texas.

Erickson dubbed Ryan a “dangerous” pick because he would “give the veneer of conservatism to whatever he touches” and make House conservative critics look bad.

He has been amenable to immigration reform

In the months after the Romney/Ryan presidential ticket lost in 2012, many top Republicans warmed to immigration reform. Ryan was one of them. In 2013, he defended the Senate immigration bill against the right's outcries, repeatedly arguing that a path to citizenship was “not amnesty.” He predicted (inaccurately) that the House would take up reform. Last year he said at an event hosted by the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce that “it’s not a question of ‘if’ we fix our broken immigration laws. It’s really a question of ‘when.'” He stressed at the time: “Please know that we understand the value of immigration.”

Today, stopping immigration reform is one of the animating forces of the conservative movement, and Ryan's advocacy for welcoming more skilled legal immigrants has further drawn the ire of passionate voices for slashing immigration, such as Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter and the far right website Breitbart.com.

When Democratic Representative Luis Gutierrez, an outspoken advocate for immigration reform, went on MSNBC Friday and praised Ryan as someone who “would be good for the country” and work with Democrats, hard-right voices swiftly sounded the siren that “amnesty” was coming if he became speaker.

Taken in sum, those points against Ryan are enough. 

“Tryouts for speaker continue,” conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly said in a press release Sunday. “The kingmakers are so desperate for someone to carry their liberal priorities that they are trying to force Congressman Paul Ryan into a job he does not want. Proven by his record, Chairman Ryan would be the same type of leader as outgoing Speaker Boehner.”

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