The speaker-elect walked down the center aisle Thursday morning, accepting hugs, kisses, handshakes and applause. Then he did something unexpected: He turned left.
Paul Ryan, the young Wisconsin Republican who in minutes would accept the speaker’s gavel, walked through the Democratic side of the well. He accepted a bear hug from Rep. Gene Green of Texas and handshakes from Rep. John Conyers of Michigan and half a dozen other African American Democrats. He reached in to greet Rep. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois in her wheelchair, shook hands with Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, a frequent critic, and hugged Georgia Rep. John Lewis, the civil-rights icon.
“If you ever pray, pray for each other: Republicans for Democrats and Democrats for Republicans,” Ryan told the House. To laughter, he added: “And I don’t mean pray for a conversion, all right? Pray for a deeper understanding, because – when you’re up here, you see it so clearly – wherever you come from, whatever you believe, we are all in the same boat.”
There was rapt silence when, a moment later, Ryan said: “Let’s be frank. The House is broken. … And I am not interested in laying blame. We are not settling scores. We are wiping the slate clean.”
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Just about everybody – even, after some hesitation, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi – rose and applauded.
I felt goose bumps watching from the gallery, for a most unfamiliar sense of hope had admitted itself to the bitterly divided chamber. In this dark hour for the House, there was a tantalizing glimpse that the institution, which has strayed so far from what the Founders created, could heal itself. Only an ingenue would believe all will be different now. But only the most hardened cynic would dismiss the possibility of what Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., in her speech nominating Ryan, called a “fresh start.”
For a day, the ideological freak show was shut down. Only nine Republicans voted against Ryan, a far more unified showing than in January, when 25 opposed John Boehner. For the moment, the Republican speaker was overtly courting Democrats. And for once, Democrats and Republicans were rising in unison to applaud.
“How reassuring it would be,” Ryan told his colleagues, “if we actually fixed the tax code, put patients in charge of their health care, grew our economy, strengthened our military, lifted people out of poverty and paid down our debt.”
Pelosi shrugged and looked around. Finding nothing objectionable in what Ryan had said, she rose and joined in the applause.
It may not be long before Ryan winds up in the same position Boehner was for five years: forced to bring up pointless abortion bills and Obamacare repeals and otherwise placating hardliners.
But he may be the only one who has a shot at repairing the chamber, because of his youth (he’s 45), his renown (Mitt Romney, on whose ticket Ryan ran in 2012, watched the proceedings as Ryan’s guest in the speaker’s box), and his popularity.
Pelosi, handing the gavel to Ryan, offered “the hand of friendship” from Democrats, and said: “This is the speaker’s house.” She corrected herself: “This is the people’s house.” But her misstatement was apt: For now, at least, this is Paul Ryan’s house.
Ryan benefits from a big parting gift from Boehner, who in his final days infuriated conservatives one last time by negotiating a bipartisan deal that will postpone budget and debt-limit fights until 2017. The outgoing speaker waved a box of tissues to his chuckling colleagues before his farewell speech, and he dabbed his eyes as he pleaded for reason. “Yes, freedom makes all things possible,” he said, “but patience is what makes all things real.”
The departing speaker was still wiping his eyes when, standing in the back of the chamber, he heard Pelosi celebrate him as “the personification of the American dream,” and Ryan accurately call him “a man of character.”
Boehner gave a final salute and walked out.
“Now I know how he felt,” Ryan said, confiding that the weight of the office makes him feel that “the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.” He suggested his colleagues should feel the weight of their offices, too.
“At bottom,” the speaker said, “we vindicate a way of life. We show by our work that free people can govern themselves.”
That proposition is now seriously in question. Let’s all – Democrats, Republicans, liberals and conservatives – pray for Ryan’s success in defending it.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.