President Obama is playing political games. He likes suggesting conservatives are crazy and racist and reactionary. So he’s mocking them for wanting to take precautions to prevent terrorists from entering the country as refugees. He says Republicans are “scared of widows and orphans.”
Meanwhile, some on the right — with their overheated rhetoric — seem to be on a mission to actually prove Obama right.
Enter [crscore]Paul Ryan[/crscore], the speaker of the House and guardian of the GOP brand, who managed to find the “Goldilocks” zone—where the response is “just right.” Appearing on Hannity, Ryan pushed back on Obama’s suggestion that taking some extra precautions constitutes cowardice and bigotry. Then, he backed it up (despite some early reporting, “with 289 ‘yes’ votes, Republicans also won a veto-proof majority” in the House for a measure that would force stricter background checks).
But while insisting on commonsense measures to keep Americans safe, Ryan also rebutted the notion that we should be discriminating against Muslims — or simply shutting out all Syrian refugees. “That’s not who we are,” he told Sean Hannity. “We believe in the First Amendment of religious freedom.”
This kind of adult leadership is vital for the GOP. As my forthcoming book Too Dumb to Fail notes, conservative leaders who want to win in the 21st century don’t just have to worry about defeating the left, they also have two internal extremes to keep in check: heretics and lunatics.
The heretics want to abandon conservatism in order to save it; the lunatics want to make conservatism fringy, angry, and exclusive. Both extremes lead toward destruction. As such, the true conservative leader is kept very busy. He must fight the left, to be sure — but also work to maintain his own ranks so that conservatism remains a philosophy that is virtuous. (This is almost a microcosm of the struggle our nation faces when preserving liberal democracy. We must fight our enemies abroad, but not in a way that might jeopardize the very values that we are fighting to defend in the first place.)
Anyone can go to extremes. Achieving the perfect balance requires diligence and dexterity. In doing just that, Ryan has risen to the occasion. He has defined the debate and positioned the GOP on firm ground that is utterly defensible.
With [crscore]John Boehner[/crscore], this was not always possible. He wasn’t out there very much defining the debate and driving the discussion. And even when he did, his communications schtick was fairly reactive. “Well, listen …” he would often begin his response to a question, “The American people want, blah, blah, blah.” He was fine, but not charismatic or energetic. He was responding to questions, not driving the debate.
Conversely, as the Syrian refugee crisis became a big story in the wake of the Paris attacks, Ryan didn’t hesitate. He seized the day. And he struck the right balance. By not taking Obama or Hannity’s bait (the temptation might be to stand up to one and pander to the other), Ryan demonstrated that the GOP is not cowardly or xenophobic or weak.
He made it clear the GOP is a compassionate party that also protects the homeland and cares more about your safety than Democrats.
That’s not a bad space to be in. So far, Ryan is passing his first test with flying colors.