With his youthful earnestness, genial personality and devotion to conservative policy, Paul Ryan enjoyed a special stature within GOP even before he became House speaker late last year.
John Boehner had resigned in frustration with his fractious caucus, and colleagues pressed Ryan to take over the job, three years after his unsuccessful bid as Mitt Romney’s running mate.
Now the raucous 2016 presidential race — which Ryan considered, then decided not to enter — is posing fresh challenges. Criticizing some statements by GOP front-runner Donald Trump but pledging to support him if nominated, Ryan has been leading his colleagues toward developing their own conservative agenda to be unveiled before this summer’s Republican convention.
The 46-year-old Irish-American speaker sat down with me this week to discuss those challenges over a glass of Guinness in the Capitol, hours after he hosted President Barack Obama and Ireland’s prime minister at a luncheon. What follows is a condensed, edited transcript of our conversation.
HARWOOD: You’ve got to be really happy you didn’t run for president this year.
RYAN: Yes. I think that’s probably a totally, completely fair thing to say. I looked into it. For lots of reasons I didn’t do it, namely phase of life, family reasons, our kids are pretty young.
HARWOOD; We do have a clear front-runner in the Republican race. You and Donald Trump — how’s that going to work?
RYAN: We’ll make it work if it happens. I’m going to speak my mind. I’m going to defend conservatism as I understand it. I’m going to defend our ideas as the Republican Party. But we’re going to have to work with whoever our nominee is.
HARWOOD: How do you take into account, as you shape your agenda, the voices of Republican voters as expressed in these primaries so far?
RYAN: Well, it’s bottom up here in the House. So every one of our members of the House Republican Conference is working on this agenda, participating in assembling this agenda based on getting influence and input from their own constituents. Every member of Congress, that’s what we do. If you’re in the House, you are from the people. You are the grassroots. You’re elected every other year. And out of that come these solutions, which we’re going to take to the country and say, “Here is what we will do if you, our fellow citizens, give us the ability to put it in place. Here’s how we get America out of the rut we are in.”
HARWOOD: So as you consider what voters are saying, are you exploring in your agenda funding the construction of a border wall?
RYAN: Remember, we’re not going to pay for that, recall? We think we should secure the border, that’s for sure. Exactly how we should secure the border? We should let the experts decide exactly where.
HARWOOD: So maybe not a big wall.
RYAN: Look, I’ll let you talk to the task force as to exactly how we think we should secure the border. But one thing that does unify all Republicans is we should have a secure border.
HARWOOD: On the issues of trade and entitlement reform, isn’t the message that Republican voters have been sending that they want something more from the Republican Party than simply freer markets and less government?
RYAN: We are in a global economy, whether we like it or not. And we believe, I believe, that America should be at the table, writing the rules of the global economy instead of China.
HARWOOD: So if the messages of those voters is “no more trade deals,” you’re saying, “That’s not what House Republicans believe?”
RYAN: I don’t think that that’s necessarily the message. They say no more bad trade deals, they say good trade deals. Donald Trump says, “Let’s have good trade deals.” So I don’t think people are saying, “Put up a wall and stop trading with the rest of the world.” How can you do that if we’re 5 percent of the world’s population?
HARWOOD: Donald Trump does say, “Do not touch Social Security and Medicare, we don’t need to do that.”
RYAN: I believe that if we do not prevent Medicare from going bankrupt, it will go bankrupt. And that will be bad for everybody. We have to tackle our debt crisis. We have to tackle the drivers of our debt. And I think, I hope, that whoever our standard bearer’s going to be will acknowledge that.
HARWOOD: But if presidential leadership is the indispensable ingredient for entitlement reform, as everybody’s said, and has for a long time, doesn’t it mean if you nominate and elect a candidate who says, “Don’t touch them,” it’s not going to happen?
RYAN: Well, I’d like to think that he will see what is going on with these programs.
HARWOOD: He says don’t touch anybody.
RYAN: Well, I disagree with that. I think for younger people like myself, they’re not going to be there for my generation when we retire. You have to change these benefits to prevent them from going bankrupt.
HARWOOD: But Donald Trump is running against candidates in the Republican primary who agree with you on entitlement reform, and beating them. What does that mean?
RYAN: Yeah, well, I think he’s beating them for lots of reasons. Do we have a debt crisis coming in America? Yes, we do. Should we do something to prevent that from happening? Yes, we should.
HARWOOD: On taxes, your predecessor as Ways and Means chair, Dave Camp, when he came out with a comprehensive tax reform a few years ago, adopted as a principle that it was going to be distributionally neutral. It wasn’t going to give an advantage to any group over the current system. Is that still a principle that you think is appropriate for the Republican tax agenda?
RYAN: So I do not like the idea of buying into these distributional tables. What you’re talking about is what we call static distribution. It’s a ridiculous notion. What it presumes is life in the economy is some fixed pie, and it’s not going to change. And it’s really up to government to redistribute the slices more equitably. That is not how the world works. That’s now how life works. You can shrink or expand the economy, and what we want to maximize is economic growth and upward mobility so that everybody can get a bigger slice of the pie.
HARWOOD: And you’re not worried that those blue-collar Republican voters, who are voting in the primaries right now, are going to say, “Hey, wait a minute. You really taking care of people at the top more than you’re taking care of me.”
RYAN: I think most people don’t think, “John’s success comes at my expense.” Or, “My success comes at your expense.” People don’t think like that. People want to know the deck is fair. Bernie Sanders talks about that stuff. That’s not who we are.
HARWOOD: Your predecessor, John Boehner, came up with a budget deal at the end of his term, which you then passed. But all of your Republican presidential candidates denounced the deal, said it was a terrible deal. If you can’t persuade your colleagues among leaders in the Republican Party that you’re doing the right thing with deals like that, how can you govern?
RYAN: We’re coming to the end of the stress of what I call a divided government. You have a conservative Congress on the one hand, and a very liberal, progressive president on the other hand. And we’re coming to the end of this. The nerves are very frayed. I feel them myself.
I really believe what we need is a clarifying election in this country, to ask the men and women who are citizens of this nation, to break this impasse. We have a broken, divided government that isn’t fixing the big problems facing our country. And if we keep this broken, divided big government going as it is, these problems get out of control. They go beyond our ability to fix them on our own terms as a nation.
Read the rest of the interview at CNBC.com