House Speaker Paul Ryan kicked off a policy summit at the Heritage Foundation with a clear message for the conservatives who have been his allies over the years but made life hard for former Speaker John Boehner: Please don't revolt, at least not this year.
"The Left would love nothing more, they would love nothing more than for a fragmented conservative movement to stand in a circular firing squad and fire so that progressives can win by default," Ryan said at the 2016 Conservative Policy Summit, hosted by Heritage Action.
Ryan was warmly received at Heritage, but his call for unity included a mild rebuke for the conservatives who have hounded GOP leadership in recent years. He issued it while warning that conservatives may have to ignore some of President Obama's unilateral executive actions, which Ryan described as "distractions" designed to prevent the Republican party from uniting around a conservative agenda.
Ryan urged the Heritage crowd not to "take the bait" when Obama tries to provoke the GOP. In exchange, he promised to spend the next years preparing to push a conservative agenda, including a politically risky plan for entitlement reform, if a Republican wins the presidency in 2017. "I am fine if I lose my seat in 2018 after doing the right thing to save America," Ryan said.
The newly minted House speaker seemed concerned that some activists leaders would thwart that opportunity by channeling their anger over Obama's maneuvers towards Republicans this year.
"We have to be straight with each other and more importantly we have to be straight with the American people," he said. "When voices in the conservative movement demand things that they know we can't achieve with a Democrat in the White House, all it does is depress our base, and in turn help Democrats stay in the White House."
That's the complaint that mainstream Republicans and leadership allies have made about Heritage Action since at least 2013, when the organization backed Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Sen. Ted Cruz, R.-Texas, in an attempt to defund Obamacare that ended unsuccessfully with a government shutdown.
Heritage Action CEO Mike Needham, a thorn in the side of Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, briefly justified such tactics while introducing Ryan. "In recent years, the Republican party has been too often not been the party of ideas, but a party of patronage doling out benefits to constituents and treating conservatives as just one more constituency to be pacified," Needham said.
But then he distinguished Ryan from other GOP leaders. "Going forward must be different. As such I am thrilled to welcome you to our third policy summit and cannot think of a better man to start off the day," he said.
Those comments are a sign of Ryan's early success in cultivating the grassroots leaders since taking over as House speaker, and Ryan returned the favor when thanking Needham for the introduction. "I see a lot of myself in that guy from where I was a couple decades ago in the think tank world," Ryan said.