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Washington Post: What Paul Ryan has that John Boehner didn’t

December 23, 2015
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Washington Post - Amber Phillips

If you had told House Republican leaders in January that by December, Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) would be replaced by Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) -- oh, and they'd be celebrating passing a spending and tax break deal instead of facing a government shutdown -- they probably wouldn't have believed you.

This year was a tumultuous and unpredictable one for all of Congress -- especially House Republicans. But in the end, it all turned out for the best, says Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who has been by Ryan's side as his deputy majority whip and was previously a key Boehner ally.

"In some ways, this year has ended better in terms of accomplishments," Cole said, "and I think there's a better attitude going forward than if Boehner had fought it all the way through."

We here at The Fix are skeptical things will continue to work out so smoothly next year for Ryan, but Cole is much more optimistic, calling Ryan "the biggest lucky break that the Republican Party got this year."

We caught up with Cole by phone Tuesday in his home district to hear what this period of extraordinary transition has been like for someone on the inside -- and why he's so darn positive about Ryan's speakership. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

THE FIX: How is Ryan's leadership style different than Boehner's?

COLE: I think he's a more visionary figure, I think he's more inclusive, and even when he arrives at decisions that are close to what Boehner would have, the manner in which he does actually garners a great deal of support.

The last day of Congress after the omnibus [Ed. note: That's D.C. speak for the spending bill] was passed, there were three of us who just happened to be close to Ryan on the floor, and we all just converged and said, "Hey, congratulations. Wonderful job." And he looked at us and he said, "I want you guys doing that next year. I don't ever want to be in appropriations ever again." And even during the process, we didn't find him intervening in the appropriations decisions very much.

THE FIX: So Boehner was more hands-on?

COLE: He kept the training wheels on the bicycle. And there were probably some good reasons to do that, but I actually think this conference is maturing as it goes along.

I also think there was too much focus on the 40 to 60 people on the right that feel strongly about something. The problem is this group in the middle that want solutions to succeed but don't want to have to vote on it [Ed. note: This is the group known as the "vote no, hope yes" caucus, because it votes against key legislation while hoping it passes anyway]. They're worried about a primary. They see no virtue in taking a risk. I would say Boehner was probably too easy in some ways, too protective of his own caucus.

THE FIX: So the solution to making the House work more smoothly is to win over that "vote no, hope yes" group?

COLE: I think so. It's difficult, because it's primary season. But you have to have the courage to go home and explain it. I was talking to one of my colleagues from Texas on the budget vote; we lost 23 to 25 Texans. He said, "Well, you have to understand we have primaries down here." And I said, "I know that, but do you think it's any less redder on my side of the Red River?"

You've got to be willing to come home and explain why this was the best available deal and why shutting down the government won't work.

THE FIX: Ryan's a policy wonk who some thought wouldn't take to such a political job. How's he handling it?

COLE: I think he's better politically than most people think. He's been around 17 years in the body, chairman of two different committees, and he had to compete with people politically to win both of those. So the idea that he's some star-eyed guy that doesn't know the game -- it's a wonderful myth to perpetuate, but it's not true.

THE FIX: Are lawmakers who despised Boehner giving Ryan the benefit of the doubt?

COLE: Yes. As far as I know, he's the first guy in American history that ever had millions of people vote for him for higher office. And almost every Republican in their district went home and told their voters how wonderful it was that Paul Ryan was now the [2012] vice presidential nominee.

So if anyone tries to talk bad about him now, voters can say "Why were you against this guy Paul Ryan, who earlier you had said was one of the best guys since sliced bread?"

So there's always been a sense that Ryan's base, because of the way in which he came in, is much larger than Boehner's ever was.

Even the 'no' votes on the omnibus; their reasons are not vitriolic. It's not 'Paul Ryan's a sellout.' It's more, 'Well, he was dealt a bad hand.' So far he's not getting the kind of personal vitriol directed at Boehner. Partly that's because he's new, and partly that's because he's playing his cards well, and partly it's the fortuitous manner in which he arrived at the speakership.

THE FIX: Are you worried about that group of conservatives who will likely vote against leadership no matter who the leader is? 

COLE: I'm a little worried, because I think this group has set up demands that in reality can't be achieved, and then they have to find somebody else to blame other than themselves.

Our problem here is that Barack Obama is president of the United States. He's got a veto pen. And Democrats can control whether something gets to the floor or not of the United States Senate. That's just the reality; they want us to be able to do now what Democrats could do in 2009 and 2010 when they had super majorities in both houses and the president [Ed. note: Democrats had a sizable House majority and, for part of the time, 60 votes in the Senate to overcome filibusters.]. We can't do that. It's not politically possible.

Some of these folks have a vested interest in always making perfect the enemy of good, and it's unfortunate, because I think it divides us instead of unites us.

THE FIX: Despite that, you sound optimistic about next year under Ryan's leadership.

COLE: I am.

The day after Ryan was elected, there was a picture on the front page of the New York Times and they had a grinning Ryan in the middle and [House Majority Leader] Kevin McCarthy on his right and [House Republican Conference Chair] Cathy McMorris Rodgers on his left, and they all had big grins, and I thought 'Wow, we finally look cool. We finally look young and attractive and optimistic and forward-looking.'

It's pretty amazing. It was the job in a sense that found the right person in the right time, and so we go into the election year more unified than we would have without him.

Online: Washington Post