WASHINGTON – It was a night of fear and loathing in Las Vegas.
“We have people across this country who are scared to death,” said Chris Christie. “Everywhere in America is a target for these terrorists.”
Donald Trump informed viewers that “our country is out of control” and raised the possibility that “we’re just going to go weaker, weaker, and just disintegrate.”
Ben Carson: “The United States of America is the patient, and the patient is in critical condition.”
Jeb Bush: “Our freedom is under attack. Our economy is under water.”
Marco Rubio: “The president has left us unsafe.”
Carly Fiorina: “Like all of you, I’m angry.”
If Americans weren’t already feeling angry and unsafe before they watched Tuesday night’s Republican presidential debate, they surely would have been feeling furious and frightened by the end.
So when I went to the Capitol on Wednesday morning, to the basement rooms where House Republicans were having their weekly meeting, I thought somebody was playing a little joke. There, decorating the lectern and the backdrop for GOP leaders’ news conference was a Twitter-style hashtag advertising House Republicans’ new theme: “Confident America.” Was this meant to be ironic?
Evidently not. House Speaker Paul Ryan, who earlier this month gave an upbeat speech by that name, emerged from his caucus meeting and delivered a few remarks that would seem to place the Wisconsin Republican in a different party – perhaps a different country – than the GOP’s doom-and-gloom presidential candidates.
Ryan boasted about “bipartisan, bicameral compromise” on major spending and tax bills that were a “big win” for jobs, manufacturing and foreign policy. He hailed “one of the biggest steps toward a rewrite of our tax code that we have made in many years.” And for those who don’t like it? “Look, in divided government, you don’t get everything you want,” he said. “And I understand that some people don’t like some of the aspects of this, but that is the compromise that we have.”
The juxtaposition was jarring: at night the presidential candidates’ rage and alarm and, the next morning, the speaker’s chipper calm. The late Mario Cuomo liked to say: “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” This 2016 GOP race goes further: The presidential candidates are campaigning in hysterical shouts, while Republican congressional leaders are trying to govern in measured voices.
In this environment, the “omnibus” spending bill and tax package are no small feats. Ryan and other leaders from both parties deserve credit. The spending bill is an ungainly mess, but it’s far preferable to having the government shut down or continue running on autopilot as it has been.
Ryan, though he’s had some missteps in his first weeks as speaker, was adept at cementing the deal, which his predecessor, John Boehner, set in motion. Republicans abandoned attempts to cut off funds for Planned Parenthood and for the settlement of refugees from Syria – both issues that had threatened to trigger a showdown – while Democrats yielded on oil exports and other items. Ultimately, though, the toxic rhetoric on the campaign trail is bound to bleed into the legislative process, putting in jeopardy even modest compromises such as the spending bill.
The presidential candidates were reckless as they stoked fear Tuesday night. “America has been betrayed,” Christie said in his opening statement. “Think of the fathers of Los Angeles, who tomorrow will head off to work and wonder about the safety of their wives and their children.” Bush raised the specter of “our civilized way of life” being destroyed by the Islamic State. Fiorina spoke of “dangerous” incompetence in government.
Ryan, in his “Confident America” speech this month, argued against such antics. “After giving it a lot of thought, this is what I think a conservative vision looks like: We want America to be confident again.” He blamed President Obama for “slice and dice” politics (in truth, this far predates Obama), and urged Republicans not to “demonize” and “polarize.”
Hard-liners on both sides raised objections to the tax-and-spending compromises. But Ryan predicted passage – a rare victory for reason over rage – this time. “I think everybody can point to something that gives them a reason to be in favor of both of these bills,” he said. The question is how long the upbeat young speaker can prevail over the worry and anger his party’s presidential candidates spread.
Ryan, departing the room, was momentarily defeated when he tried to open the glass door. “Oh – it’s a pull, not a push,” he said.
It’s going to take a lot of both, Mr. Speaker.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.