Paul Ryan's CPAC Speech: Too Busy to Talk 2016

Rebecca Kaplan
National Journal

Paul Ryan sounded a lot more like a busy House Budget Committee chairman and a loyal lieutenant to House Speaker John Boehner than a Republican gaming out a presidential campaign in 2016, based on his speech Friday morning at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

The Wisconsin congressman's 14-minute address at CPAC primarily defended the GOP budget he authored — and took a few cracks at the one the Senate Democrats released the day after his.  “The Vatican’s not the only place blowing smoke this week,” he quipped.

The decision by Ryan and the Republicans to write a fiscal blueprint that balanced the budget in 10 years meant it needed to include steep cuts to entitlements and caps on spending, in addition to the acceptance of a tax hike agreed to earlier this year and a $716 billion cut from the Medicare program for which Ryan hammered President Obama relentlessly on the campaign trail.

Though his conservative audience didn’t need to be sold on the wisdom of a balanced budget, Ryan made the pitch.

“The budget is a means to an end. We’re not balancing the budget as an accounting exercise. We’re not just trying to make the numbers add up. We are trying to improve people’s lives.” He said. “Our debt is a threat to our country. We have to tackle this problem before it tackles us.”

Ryan’s only real nod to offering advice on the direction of his party was when he briefly stressed the importance of community, and the need for the government to get out of the way so the economy can grow.

It was a mere shadow of the argument Ryan made at a dinner honoring Jack Kemp last December, where he said the GOP needs to do a better job of  speaking to all Americans. The party must get better, Ryan argued, at communicating its vision to combat poverty by reforming the social safety net in the country and measuring success by outcomes rather than spending.

“When our neighbors are struggling, we look out for one another. We do that best through our families and communities — and our party must stand for making them stronger,” Ryan said in that speech. “We have a compassionate vision based on ideas that work, but sometimes we don’t do a good job of laying out that vision. We need to do better.”

At the December speech, Ryan even made light of the specter of the 2016 election that hung over his head. “Know any good diners in Iowa or New Hampshire?” he said to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who was receiving an award at the dinner. “I’m sure the press won’t read too much into that.”

At CPAC, Ryan was not selling a GOP vision for future elections. He was selling the GOP vision for the fiscal fights underway right now: curb spending, cut the deficit, and scale back the scope of government. He ceded any 2016 political positioning to Rubio and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who gave back-to-back speeches outlining their different visions for the country.

There will be other opportunities for Ryan if and when he wants to build the platform for a national bid. For now, the Budget Committee chairman has other work to do.