Paul Ryan's Crossroads

Check your vision.

Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

What should we make of House Speaker Paul Ryan’s speech in the Capitol on Wednesday? Ryan, who has spent his career positioning himself as the Republican Party’s ideas leader, devoted most of his remarks not to policy but to politics.

In the most poignant moment, Ryan uttered something you don’t hear often from politicians -- “I was wrong” -- when he apologized for having rhetorically divided the nation into “makers” and “takers.”

“I shouldn’t castigate a large group of Americans to make a point,” Ryan acknowledged.

Such comments are rare in politics, and suggest admirable resources of integrity and a capacity for growth. But Ryan works within the context of a congressional party that appears determined to bury him in dysfunction and reaction, and he continues to cling to policies that offer no way out of the rubble.

Having promised a return to regular legislative order in the House of Representatives, and a season of big policy ideas, Ryan has been stymied by the same anti-government Republicans who undermined his predecessor, John Boehner. The House is about to leave for recess with no apparent progress on meeting an April 15 deadline for approving a federal budget.

The vision Ryan sketched Wednesday was nonetheless uplifting. In a “confident America,” he said, “we aren’t afraid to disagree with each other. We don’t lock ourselves in an echo chamber, where we take comfort in the dogmas and opinions we already hold.”

Yet Ryan leads a party that’s trapped, especially in the House, in precisely the kind of ideological lockdown he describes. One small but telling example: Republicans broke longstanding tradition and prohibited the White House budget director from testifying on the administration’s annual budget request.

QuickTake Speaker of the House

With extremists in his party, including Ted Cruz, massed on one front, and Donald Trump positioned on another, Ryan occupies perilous ground. Yet he seemed confident of finding a way out. “Instead of playing to your anxieties, we can appeal to your aspirations,” Ryan said with perhaps unreasonable sunniness. “Instead of playing the identity politics of ‘our base’ and ‘their base,’ we unite people around ideas and principles.”

This is a statement of politics in the ideal, and it’s a good destination for Ryan to keep in mind. But the Republican leader and his troops have little likelihood of reaching it until their party takes a sharp turn away from dogma toward pragmatism and moderation.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.