House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., walked into Wednesday's Heritage Action Policy Summit -- the sanctum sanctorum of conservative activism in Washington -- with a clear message: An election year is no time for internecine warfare among the right's bickering factions.
"We have to unite the clans," Ryan said, quoting William Wallace's fictional line in "Braveheart."
Part of that clan-uniting, he said, involved looking past "distractions" generated by President Barack Obama during his final year in office.
"He's going to try to get us talking about guns or some other hot-button issue and not about his failures on ISIS or the economy or poverty or national security," Ryan said. "He's going to try and knock us off our game. We have to understand his distractions for what they are. Otherwise, we're going to have a distraction this week, we're going to have a distraction next week, and then we're going to have a distraction the week after that. And that's going to be the Obama playbook all year long. And so what I want to say to you is this: Don't take the bait. Let's not fight over tactics. Don't impugn people's motives."
Those remarks drove most of the media coverage of Ryan's speech -- especially since they were delivered at an event hosted by an organization that frequently needled former Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, about both policy and tactics, driving much of the discontent that forced him from office. And Ryan's call for unity was seasoned with explicit warnings against "acting like angry reactionaries" and "stand(ing) in a circular firing squad."
Dan Holler, Heritage Action's communications director and point man on Capitol Hill, put it this way in a carefully worded statement: "For the folks in attendance and the tens of thousands watching online, it was a day of policy -- putting forward conservative ideas and highlighting the lawmakers positioned to make those ideas a reality. For folks in Washington and many in the media, it spawned stories of finger wagging. If conservatives are to be successful in 2016, they cannot simply ignore Barack Obama for the next 11 months. They must confront this president and put forward a real, substantive conservative policy agenda."
The good news for Ryan is that he enjoys Heritage's goodwill in assembling a wide-ranging legislative agenda that Republicans can rally around in an election year. Heritage Action chief executive Michael Needham said as much in his remarks introducing the speaker on Wednesday, praising him for his "aspirational politics" and for having "normalized" a particular brand of conservative Medicare reform.
But being an ideas man is only going to get Ryan so far.
As Holler makes clear, conservatives expect lawmakers to take action even in an election year. Heritage Action, for instance, suggested last month that pending FAA reauthorization legislation, one of the few must-pass bills on the agenda this year, be used as a vehicle for conservative policy: "Lawmakers should use all available leverage points to reassert their constitutional prerogatives."
And in a panel discussion Wednesday, a few hours after Ryan left the stage, members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus said they weren't about to lay down their arms. Right now, in fact, they are doing battle with Ryan and his leadership team over how to approach next year's federal budget in an election year.
"You want to lose?" asked Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, a caucus co-founder. "Then become realistic and not aspirational about the things we can accomplish and do together."
Asked about Holler's suggestion that conservatives "cannot simply ignore Barack Obama for the next 11 months," Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong said, "We agree."
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