SEPTEMBER 4, 2021
Just 80 miles separate Simi Valley from Yorba Linda, two cities on opposite ends of Los Angeles that help tell the modern history of the Republican Party.
And in two addresses, barely three months apart, two old friends demonstrated just how much Republicans have changed in the Trump era.
“Voters looking for Republican leaders want to see independence and mettle. They will not be impressed by the sight of yes-men and flatterers flocking to Mar-a-Lago,” former House speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said May 27 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley.
On Wednesday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) traveled to the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda for a foreign policy address with Robert O’Brien, President Donald Trump’s final national security adviser, at his side.
They promoted what they said were Trump’s foreign policy achievements and critiqued President Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, including the Pentagon’s shuttering of Bagram air base, north of Kabul, before all Americans had left the country.
“Which was never President Trump’s plan,” McCarthy said of closing the air base, claiming that Trump ordered punishments of the Taliban if they broke their word. “I watched the past administration. When conditions were broken, you cut it off, you punished them. So they learned not to do it.”
McCarthy has staked his ambition of becoming House speaker on remaining close to the former president. He was one of the “flatterers” who visited Trump in Florida at his Palm Beach resort, just three weeks after Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in a bid to overturn Biden’s victory.
The GOP leader followed up with another visit in July, to Trump’s New Jersey golf resort, and he regularly boasts of his phone calls with the ex-president.
Ryan never figured out a consistent approach to Trump. He veered between public support and private lamenting about his erratic behavior.
His outspoken criticism of Trump now will not win any praise from Democrats, who feel that Ryan should have spoken out more forcefully when he actually held the speaker’s gavel.
This split-screen approach to Trumpism, between such good friends, is one of the most clear demonstrations of how much the ex-president changed GOP politics.
Ryan, 51, and McCarthy, 56, have been close allies since the Californian won his first race in 2006. They linked arms with another Republican, then-Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.), dubbing themselves the “Young Guns” who would steer the GOP to its future.
Ryan was always hailed as the policy visionary, leading to his 2012 selection as running mate for GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
McCarthy was always the affable sidekick who loved to recruit candidates, easily winning the race to succeed Cantor as majority leader in 2014 when the Virginian lost his seat to a primary challenger.
When John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) resigned as speaker the next year, and McCarthy couldn’t get enough support, Ryan jumped forward and took the gavel, with McCarthy as his No. 2 man for more than three years.
But their approach to Trump never meshed. Ryan clashed with him throughout the 2016 campaign and ultimately refused to campaign with him, while McCarthy remained supportive and earned the “my Kevin” moniker from the new president.
After Ryan retired in 2018, as Democrats won the majority, McCarthy became minority leader and made clear to rank-and-file Republicans he would stay close to Trump, in contrast to Ryan’s handling of the relationship.
The two remain friends. In late August, they traded text messages about opposing the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget plan, according to an adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private communications.
Ryan left the Washington scene in a way that few former speakers have.
He never joined a law or lobbying firm. He never wrote a book about his time leading the House. He has almost exclusively taken private speaking gigs. He moved his family to a wealthy Maryland suburb of Washington and became chairman of a shell company that invests in other business interests, sometimes referred to as a “blank-check” firm. He also sits on the board of Fox Corp., which includes Fox News.
His on-again-off-again beard returned in a rare media interview Monday, when he told a Milwaukee TV station what has been obvious for several years: He is not running for public office again, at least not for a very long time.
But he joined the board of the Reagan library, whose leaders remain ensconced in the traditional conservative movement. They started a post-Trump lecture series called “A Time for Choosing,” asking the former speaker to debut it in the spring.
In his most public condemnation of Trump, Ryan accused him of co-opting Reagan’s movement with the “trap of identity politics” and said the party could end up failing if it remains focused on “resentments” rather than policy.
“It will be because we mistake reactionary skirmishes and the cultural wars with a coherent agenda. It will be because we gave too much allegiance to one passing political figure and weren’t loyal enough to our principles,” Ryan said.
He credited Trump for boosting the pre-pandemic economy by supporting the 2017 tax cuts for corporations and individuals, but only because as president he listened to people like Ryan in their push for a Reagan-style approach to taxes.
“It was the populism of President Trump in action tethered to conservative principles,” he said.
Ryan name-checked four Republican freshmen with diverse backgrounds as the party’s future: Reps. Tony Gonzales (Texas), Young Kim (Calif.), Maria Elvira Salazar (Fla.) and Victoria Spartz (Ind.). All four voted to certify Biden’s victory after Congress reassembled following the Jan. 6 riot.
In a more-than-25-minute speech, Ryan never mentioned McCarthy.
The library’s lecture series has also included former vice president Mike Pence, who talked of his pride in playing “a small part on that tragic day when we reconvened the Congress and fulfilled our duty” to certify Biden’s win despite taunts from Trump.
On Wednesday, McCarthy settled into Orange County with radio host Hugh Hewitt moderating the forum. Hewitt, who sits on the Nixon library board, morphed from sharp Trump critic as he launched his 2016 campaign into a staunch supporter. On Aug. 26, the former president appeared on Hewitt’s radio show.
(Hewitt is a contributor to the op-ed page of The Washington Post, whose publisher and chief executive, Frederick J. Ryan Jr., serves as chairman of the board of trustees of the Reagan library.)
McCarthy allies say that his Trump allegiance reflects his own members, who have an overwhelming loyalty to the former president.
About half of the 212 House Republicans took office after Trump’s surprise 2016 victory — and about 75 took office after Ryan retired from the House.
McCarthy supported Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) as a member of his leadership team despite her anti-Trump views, until the caucus turned against her and he cut her loose.
Ryan, the former House speaker, remains close to Cheney and is financially aiding her 2022 reelection. Her team now includes two key Ryan alumni.
He still sees the GOP future as something resembling its past, that he and Cheney are heirs to Reagan and the Bush family. He sees Trump as a political loser.
“Even after the setbacks of 2020, it will be up to the conservative movement, as it always is, to serve those ideals with conviction, heart, and respect for the American people,” Ryan said in May.
His friend has decided that Trump is the party’s present and future.