The Emerging Rubio-Ryan Republican Divide

Beth Reinhard
National Journal

Lumped together as two of the youngest and brightest Republican stars, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida parted ways on the fiscal cliff, with votes that reflect divergent strategies for building their party and political futures.

Ryan, who accepted tax hikes on the wealthiest Americans to avert a potential economic disaster, is betting that the path to power runs through compromise and governing. After anchoring a losing Republican presidential ticket widely perceived as hostile to middle-class concerns, Ryan heeded polls showing the public ready to blame the GOP if the deal fell through. The powerful budget committee chairman, loyal to House Speaker John Boehner, is mostly playing the inside game.

Rubio, who defeated a sitting governor on the back of the tea party movement, is largely playing the outside game. He rarely bucks the GOP’s conservative base – consider his recent votes against an overstuffed Hurricane Sandy aid bill and a United Nations treaty protecting people with disabilities -- although an opportunity looms in the anticipated debate over immigration reform. Rubio appears more invested more in cultivating his national profile than in courting leadership on Capitol Hill.

While both Ryan and Rubio kept a low profile during the debate over the fiscal cliff, they garnered wide attention for their contrasting approaches to the first major vote of the next election cycle.

“Ryan ultimately is a policy wonk who understood that getting tax cuts for the vast majority of the American people could be a huge victory,” said Republican consultant John Feehery, who has advised top House Republicans.  “Rubio seems more politically attuned to the conservative base. I think that’s the divide.”

It’s the same divide that will determine whether Ryan or Rubio is better positioned for a 2016 presidential race, although unlike the defining tax deal of 1990 that helped crush the first President Bush’s reelection bid, the fiscal cliff vote is only the first of many battles over the federal budget. While Ryan risks raising hackles among the hard-core conservatives who have run more moderate Republicans out of office in recent years, Rubio risks alienating the majority of voters who see the Republican Party as too extreme, with votes against the Violence Against Women Act and funding for Gulf Coast states damaged by the BP oil spill.

A lot depends on what happens next. If the fiscal-cliff vote is the first step toward spending cuts, entitlement reform, and deficit reduction, Ryan will have an easier time explaining his support for a tax hike to partisan audiences in Iowa and New Hampshire. If Congress fails to come up with comprehensive tax and budget reform and the economy continues to sputter, Rubio will face less public pressure to defend his vote to go over the fiscal cliff.

The backlash is already coming from both sides. Conservative RedState blogger Erick Erickson, who touted Ryan as House Speaker last November, wrote of Ryan’s vote: “Thus ends the Paul Ryan 2016 Presidential Exploratory Committee.” Conservative Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin dismissed Rubio and other Republican leaders who voted no as “showboaters … who should consider whether they want to be lawmakers furthering the conservative agenda or lapdogs of the conservative racket that thrives on the politics of outrage and victimhood.”

Indeed, Ryan cast himself as a pragmatist, emphasizing that his vote protected “as many Americans as possible” from a tax hike and that lawmakers “have a duty to apply our principles to the realities of governing.” In a written statement that reflects the Medicare reform-crusading lawmaker’s desire to be seen as a bold leader, he said, “I came to Congress to make tough decisions – not to run away from them.”

Peter Wehner, who served in the Bush and Reagan administrations and has known Ryan since they worked together at the Empower America think tank in the 1990s, called his vote a “profile in courage.”

“I think he took the responsible vote, the mature vote,” Wehner said. “It was quite impressive because it was a hard vote to cast. People with an eye to presidential politics cast votes to appeal to the Republican base, and this was not that vote.”

Ryan’s ambitious plan to remake the federal budget has earned him a reservoir of goodwill among movement conservatives, but he has also cast some votes they consider anathema. He voted for the Wall Street bailout and for the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, siding, as he did on the fiscal cliff vote, with party leadership instead of with conservative ideologues. That strategy makes sure the ambitious lawmaker gets a seat at the table but creates some room for future rivals on his right.

As for Rubio, he had little to lose by voting no on the fiscal-cliff deal. He didn’t risk scuttling the agreement by joining only five other Republican senators, including tea party favorites Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah. Rubio’s status as one of the most prominent Hispanic Republicans in the country at a time when the GOP is desperate to make inroads in that community also ensures that his voice will be heard, even if he crosses colleagues on Capitol Hill.

The differences between Ryan and Rubio are also evident in the choices made by their political action committees. Of the more than $1.6 million that Rubio’s Reclaim America PAC spent between July 2011 and late November, only 4.6 percent went to candidates, according to a National Journal analysis in December. The biggest chunk went to consultants. Ryan’s Prosperity PAC, in contrast, gave 26 percent of the $4 million it raised to candidates.

Rubio’s explanation for voting against the fiscal-cliff deal reflects a firm conservative posture that leaves little room for a potential GOP rival to outflank him. “Thousands of small businesses, not just the wealthy, will now be forced to decide how they'll pay this new tax, and, chances are, they'll do it by firing employees, cutting back their hours and benefits, or postponing the new hire they were looking to make,” Rubio said in a written statement. “And to make matters worse, it does nothing to bring our dangerous debt under control.” 

Asked for examples of Rubio crossing his party, a spokesman pointed to his support for President Obama’s choice for ambassador to El Salvador, who was opposed by conservatives such as outgoing Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, and his vote in favor of sugar subsidies, which was criticized by TheWall Street Journal. But Rubio has mostly toed the party line during his first two years in office and boasts an A-plus, 100 percent rating from Americans for Prosperity. (Ryan, in contrast, has a 74 percent rating from the free-market advocacy group, in part because he refuses to pledge to oppose climate-change legislation that would raise taxes.)

“Sen. Rubio has been very consistent in his belief that we have got to get a handle on spending in order to get a handle on the deficit, and this bill on the fiscal cliff did nothing to reduce spending and could even add $4 trillion in debt,’’ said Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who advises Rubio.

Immigration could be the issue that allows Rubio to prove his independence and leadership abilities, as Ryan has done on Medicare reform. Rubio has said he supports giving legal status to young, undocumented residents who have served in the military, although he has yet to put his name to a bill. “He’s clearly been working to build a consensus on a version of the Dream Act that could actually pass,” Ayres said. “Immigration is an extraordinarily emotional and intense issue, and he clearly is willing to take a position that is not exactly in sync with the Republican base.”

The comparisons between Ryan and Rubio are likely to continue until one of them rules out a presidential bid. When the two Republican hotshots shared a stage one month ago at a banquet honoring Jack Kemp, Ryan quipped, “Know any good diners in Iowa or New Hampshire?” No doubt two of the best communicators in the Republican Party will relish explaining their fiscal-cliff votes and framing the upcoming debates over budget and tax policy.