Republican vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI). (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
On the day after 44-year old Sen. Marco Rubio’s smashing debate performance 45-year old Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was elected speaker of the House. It is hard to overlook the confluence of these two events. Ryan replaced a speaker from 65-year old John Boehner; Wednesday night Rubio swatted down his friend and one-time ally, the 62-year old former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Rubio and Ryan have much in common. Both are policy wonks, both handle the media exceptionally well and both have respect from many sectors of the party. They share many of the same ideas, favoring a limited but vigorous federal government and a robust foreign policy. Both are strongly pro-life Catholics. Both favor a reform agenda, one that not only promotes growth but seeks to promote upward mobility.
It is a powerful statement — potentially — about the current state of the GOP. The contrast between the GOP’s new leaders and Democratic leaders Rep. Nancy Pelosi (75), Sen. Harry Reid (75) and presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) (74) and Hillary Clinton (68) is stark. It is not age alone or even longevity on the national stage. As young parents, in tune with popular culture and digitally proficient Ryan and Rubio seem like the adults, while the Democrats seem like cranky, aging parents.
Rubio had a generational theme already, and Ryan is also promising a new way of doing business. Yesterday Ryan told his fellow Republicans, “Tomorrow, we are turning the page. We are not going to have a House that looks like it’s looked the last few years. … Our party lost its vision, and we are going to replace it with a vision.” Today Ryan told his members, “We are wiping the slate clean. Neither the members nor the people are satisfied with how things are going. We need to make some changes, starting with how the House does business.” He continued:
The cynics will scoff and say it’s not possible. But you better believe we are going to try. We will not duck the tough issues. We will take them head on. We are going to do all we can so working people get their strength back and people not working get their lives back. No more favors for the few. Opportunity for all—that is our motto.
I often talk about the need for a vision. I’m not sure I ever said what I meant. We solve problems here—yes. We create a lot of them too. But at bottom, we vindicate a way of life. We show by our work that free people can govern themselves. They can solve their own problems. They can make their own decisions. They can deliberate, collaborate, and get the job done. We show self-government is not only more efficient and more effective; it is more fulfilling. In fact, we show it is that struggle, that hard work, the very achievement itself that makes us free.
Rubio’s triumph and Ryan’s ascension raise several questions.
First, will Ryan’s elevation help Rubio by reinforcing the generational theme and by have a respected voice echo his calls for reform? If so, even without an endorsement Ryan becomes a significant asset to Rubio.
Second, if Ryan’s unifying theme and emphasis on collaboration fail, does that adversely affect Rubio, convincing the base that only a hard-charging, bomb-throwing approach can work?
Third, do the Democrats have a problem? The geriatric face of the party, in the GOP’s telling, reinforces how old and stale are their ideas.
Opportunities don’t guarantee success, of course. The real test for the GOP young leaders will come when adversity strikes, when they are hit from all sides and when not all expectations can be met. Nevertheless, one cannot help but be struck by the role reversal from 2008 when an aging Republican, saddled with defending an incumbent president, lost to a dynamic, intelligent young man. So, yes, the Republicans can hope that Rubio is the party’s Obama, but a conservative one who will govern effectively in tandem with Ryan. Perhaps the GOP will come to terms with a basic political truth: You can’t govern if you don’t win first.