Last week, before Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) confirmed that he’d conditionally be a candidate for House speaker, visitors to the Drudge Report occasionally saw an ominous Web ad. Next to a picture of Ryan’s face was the warning: “Stop Paul Ryan, the Homosexual Lobby’s Trojan Horse for Speaker.” Anyone who clicked was sent to a petition sponsored by Public Advocate of the United States, a Virginia-based conservative group run by local pol Eugene Delgaudio.
“Paul Ryan co-sponsored and voted for the dangerous Gay Bill of Special Rights — a bill that will trample the Constitutional Rights of thousands of Americans,” wrote Delgaudio. “Now, Ryan thinks he can hide from his past record of voting to throw conservatives under the bus as he runs for the most powerful position in the House.”
In an interview, Delgaudio, a Republican county supervisor in Loudoun County, decoded the “Gay Bill of Special Rights” — it was actually the Employee Non-Discrimination Act — and said that the Ryan fight was just one of the myriad ways he had opposed it. “I’ve been in this for 34 years now,” he said. “My organization has done many things, like launch the committee to impeach Clinton at Impeachclinton.org. This will not be the first go around for me to oppose ENDA. There will be many battles ahead for Public Advocate.”
That’s the sort of thing Ryan’s defenders are tired of, the sort of thing they want this week’s debate and next week’s speaker vote to finish. Just three years ago, Ryan was the celebrated Republican nominee for vice president. Before that, as House Budget Committee chairman, his handiwork was so popular that conservative voters browbeat any candidate who didn’t endorse it.
“What you just did to Paul Ryan is unforgiveable,” one voter told Newt Gingrich at an Iowa campaign stop, after Gingrich called Ryan’s budget “social engineering” that would alienate people. “You’re an embarrassment to our party.”
Yet since Ryan emerged as a possible savior, a consensus candidate for speaker, conservative groups that live off of voter angst have pilloried him — and gotten noticed. A front-page story in the New York Times traced how “a growing and powerful collection of far-right pundits and news media” had called Ryan too far left to lead the House GOP, citing radio hosts Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin and the iconic Eagle Forum president Phyllis Schlafly.
To pull this off, Ryan critics have had to erase some of their own histories, and surmount the real affection their allies have for the Wisconsin Republican. On the day that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California) pulled out of the speaker’s race, former FreedomWorks president Dick Armey, who was House majority leader under Gingrich, told The Washington Post that Ryan was the ideal candidate to replace McCarthy in the race for speaker. Last night, after Ryan issued his leadership terms, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) pulled out of the race, calling Ryan the “right person at the right time.”
And the mainstream conservative press, which has consistently covered Ryan favorably, has not gone along with the mau-mauing. Washington Examiner media reporter T. Becket Adams simply paged through the comments Ingraham and Levin made about the choice of Ryan as the vice presidential nominee in 2012. “The Ryan selection sent a jolt of electricity, and the conservative base, including myself, are energized by it,” Levin said in August 2012, according to Adams. “Outstanding choice Paul Ryan. America has a choice this election.”
Conservatives point out that the praise for Ryan was personal — he is genuinely liked in the caucus — and that it predated the debate about immigration reform that followed the 2012 defeat.
“In the short term, it wouldn’t be a struggle with Paul Ryan,” Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) told The Post. “But we know what he believes in. He’s been active on this for 20 years. I don’t know that he’s likely to let go of a deep conviction that would have a dramatic effect on our society.”
Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Florida), agreed that Ryan’s support for immigration reform was troubling. “I want to talk to him about it,” said Yoho. “He’s only one person, but he has a direction he can push that. He’ll set a tone for that, and that’s a concern of mine.”
Yoho was also among the conservatives who fretted about Ryan’s idea of restricting members from making motions to “vacate the chair,” challenging the incumbent speaker. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-North Carolina) had used such a motion to foment dissent against outgoing Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). The speaker’s decision to step down had been celebrated by the activist right. If just a few conservative congressmen refused to go along with Ryan’s rules, they’d be in sync with the table-banging outside groups, and fear no consequences whatsoever back home.
“The frustration that is exhibited by the crowd that Donald Trump’s drawing is unbelievable,” said Rep. Walter Jones (R-North Carolina). “The frustration is that Washington is controlled by interest groups — by money. My point is that Rep. Daniel Webster has said, many times, that principle and power cannot co-exist … it’s nothing about Paul Ryan personally, but Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan were kind of cabal, and we need to rebuild trust in Washington.”
The vast majority of Republican congressmen, who are ready to back Ryan, are not interested in speaking the language of the aggrieved. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Pennsylvania), who is retiring next year, cited the support of Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Illinois) as evidence that Ryan could appeal to Democrats. On the right, Gutierrez’s friendship with Ryan is merely a reminder of their alliance on immigration reform. Rush Limbaugh used his radio show to warn listeners that Ryan had been praised — sarcastically — by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.
“It makes me nervous,” Limbaugh told his listeners. “I’m not interested in bipartisanship and crossing the aisle with these people… the future is defeating these people, not working with.”