House Speaker Paul Ryan

House Speaker Paul Ryan Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Ryan's Ascent, Budget Deal Force a Message Change for Democrats

The minority is now focused on warning that a functional GOP will be worse for the country than a dysfunctional one.

For a long time now, House Demo­crats’ mes­saging strategy has been a simple one: Point out GOP dys­func­tion and won­der aloud how a party be­set by in­tern­al battles could be trus­ted to run the coun­try.

But with the as­cen­sion of Speak­er Paul Ry­an and pas­sage of a budget deal that raised spend­ing caps and the fed­er­al debt ceil­ing, his op­pon­ents are pre­par­ing a shift in tone—even if they’re not con­ced­ing that the days of Re­pub­lic­an in­fight­ing are over.

Now, Demo­crats are cast­ing Ry­an’s rise to the top as a sign that the ul­tracon­ser­vat­ive wing of the GOP has taken over. In­stead of mock­ing Re­pub­lic­ans’ fail­ure to do things—fund the gov­ern­ment, elect a lead­er, etc.—they’re is­su­ing dire warn­ings about what might hap­pen if they ac­tu­ally en­act their own policies.

“It’s all go­ing to boil down to a con­trast, and the con­trast is House Demo­crats fight­ing to lift wages and strengthen paychecks and make edu­ca­tion af­ford­able, while House Re­pub­lic­ans are fight­ing for big­ger tax cuts for the rich and to pro­tect spe­cial in­terests,” said Rep. Steve Is­rael, who runs House Demo­crats’ mes­saging strategy and helmed the Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee the pre­vi­ous two cycles.

Demo­crats aren’t yet cred­it­ing Re­pub­lic­ans as a uni­fied bunch, but Ry­an’s 236-vote back­ing in the speak­er elec­tion—along with some early sig­nals of good faith from the con­ser­vat­ives who fre­quently clashed with former Speak­er John Boehner—have at least quelled some of the frantic party soul-search­ing of a few weeks ago.

Mean­while, Ry­an faces few­er stum­bling blocks in the early go­ing, thanks in part to some last-minute “barn clean­ing” by his pre­de­cessor. The debt lim­it has been raised, the High­way Trust Fund ex­ten­ded, the Ex­port-Im­port Bank reau­thor­ized, and budget para­met­ers passed. Demo­crats are already warn­ing about the po­ten­tial of an­oth­er gov­ern­ment shut­down with fund­ing sched­uled to ex­pire Dec. 11, but as­sum­ing Ry­an clears that hurdle, he will have some breath­ing room—at least from the kind of prob­lems that can lead the even­ing news.

House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi had taken to call­ing that series of dead­lines a “cal­en­dar of chaos,” and Re­pub­lic­ans’ struggles to line up a re­place­ment to Boehner fueled Demo­crats’ mes­sage that the GOP couldn’t be trus­ted with con­trol of gov­ern­ment.

But while Re­pub­lic­ans en­joy a re­prieve from the tur­moil, Demo­crats say avoid­ing GOP in­fight­ing will only be to Ry­an’s det­ri­ment. Any steps he takes to ap­pease con­ser­vat­ive mal­con­tents will only ali­en­ate middle-class fam­il­ies, they ar­gue. “I would not as­sume that House Re­pub­lic­ans will now be a func­tion­al group un­der Paul Ry­an,” said Rep. Ben Ray Lu­jan, who suc­ceeded Is­rael as the chair­man of the DCCC. “The House Free­dom Caucus is go­ing to con­tin­ue to de­mand and ex­tract from their speak­er, namely Paul Ry­an.”

Is­rael also men­tioned the Free­dom Caucus, a group of about 40 mem­bers that helped force Boehner’s ouster. “[Ry­an]’s go­ing to con­sist­ently be put between a rock and 40 hard places,” he said. “The Free­dom Caucus is not go­ing to give him the flex­ib­il­ity that he needs. Boehner had a hon­ey­moon peri­od too, but their crazi­ness is their grav­ity.”

For now, their plans to ex­ploit the GOP’s right­ward pull start with eco­nom­ic policy, the “din­ner table” is­sues that Demo­crats have pledged to fo­cus on in their ef­forts to win middle-class voters. Next week, the DCCC will run so­cial-me­dia ads in at least 15 dis­tricts tar­get­ing the GOP budget, which Demo­crats say “guts” edu­ca­tion. Pell Grants, Head Start, and early-child­hood fund­ing will be the areas of fo­cus, ac­cord­ing to a DCCC aide.

Of course, at­tack­ing the budgets of a Ry­an-led GOP is noth­ing new for Demo­crats. Since his first days as the Re­pub­lic­an num­bers whiz, op­pon­ents have made his budget plans syn­onym­ous with slash­ing gov­ern­ment pro­grams that people de­pend on. Dur­ing his 2012 bid for vice pres­id­ent, Demo­crats por­trayed him as in­sens­it­ive to the plight of work­ing fam­il­ies. Dur­ing their de­bate, Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden played up the con­trast on eco­nom­ic is­sues. “Look, folks, use your com­mon sense: Who do you trust on this?” he asked.

“House Re­pub­lic­ans have been forced to take po­s­i­tions and will con­tin­ue to take po­s­i­tions that ali­en­ate them with key vot­ing blocs,” Lu­jan said, adding that Ry­an’s eco­nom­ic pri­or­it­ies “take an axe to pro­grams that mat­ter to work­ing fam­il­ies.”

Re­pub­lic­ans don’t buy the idea that eco­nom­ic is­sues will be an ad­vant­age for Demo­crats. “Speak­er Ry­an has said House Re­pub­lic­ans will be the pro­pos­i­tion party that puts for­ward solu­tions to the chal­lenges fa­cing our coun­try,” said Ry­an spokes­man Ash­Lee Strong. “Re­pub­lic­ans will of­fer the coun­try a bold agenda and al­tern­at­ive that leads to high­er wages, more jobs, and great­er prosper­ity. We’re ready to roll up our sleeves to im­prove Amer­ic­ans’ lives and we hope Demo­crats will join us.”

And they’re not con­vinced the policy fo­cus will help Demo­crats’ elect­or­al chances either. “They’ve tried for the past three cycles now to win by us­ing Paul Ry­an and his budgets and it’s con­tin­ued to fail miser­ably,” said Katie Mar­tin, the com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or at the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee. “Those at­tacks have left them with the smal­lest caucus since 1928.”

For all the fo­cus on budget cuts, Demo­crats aren’t done hit­ting the GOP for in­ac­tion either. Ry­an’s vow not to take up im­mig­ra­tion dur­ing Obama’s pres­id­ency, Lu­jan said, will hurt at least five Re­pub­lic­ans in swing dis­tricts who have broken with their party to sup­port re­form ef­forts: Reps. Robert Dold, Car­los Cur­belo, Dav­id Valadao, Jeff Den­ham, and Mike Coff­man. “Paul Ry­an’s in­stall­a­tion ba­sic­ally cuts them off at the knees and means that they can­not ful­fill a prom­ise they made to their con­stitu­ents,” Lu­jan said.

House Demo­crats have taken swings at the GOP na­tion­ally too, with the Con­gres­sion­al His­pan­ic Caucus call­ing on Sat­urday Night Live to dis­in­vite guest host Don­ald Trump. “It’s an at­tempt to com­ment on how di­vis­ive they are,” Is­rael said. “Every pres­id­en­tial [elec­tion] plays a ma­jor role in House and Sen­ate pro­spects.”

Amid the talk of pres­id­en­tial policy and con­ser­vat­ive policy, Demo­crats are fully pre­pared to pivot back to their mes­sage that Re­pub­lic­ans are plain old dys­func­tion­al. “I sus­pect that the Re­pub­lic­ans will con­tin­ue a civil war and spend­ing time fight­ing amongst them­selves in­stead of fight­ing for hard­work­ing Amer­ic­ans,” Is­rael said. “[Ry­an] knows that this hon­ey­moon is go­ing to be very brief.”