Paul Ryan began his speakership with a significant achievement: beating the odds to unite a fractious GOP caucus on behalf of a fresh start and clean slate for his party in Congress.
On the final vote to select a new speaker, even the Tea Party-oriented Freedom Caucus gave a solid majority of its votes to Ryan. In the final tally, only nine Republicans (of 247) failed to back the new leader from Wisconsin. By comparison, last year 25 GOP members declined to support John Boehner. In other words, before he even picked up the gavel, Ryan managed to cut the number of conservative dissenters by nearly two-thirds; 96% of elected Republicans backed his bid to become the new Speaker of the House.
This is remarkable, because Congressional Republicans labor under two structural disadvantages when it comes to party unity. First, Barack Obama remains President of the United States. In terms of articulating a coherent agenda, it’s always easier to do so when you have a president of your own party who commands the “Bully Pulpit.”
Second, the Republicans now control majorities in both houses of Congress, so it’s not enough to simply define themselves in terms of opposition to the Democrats. In terms of tactics, it’s always harder to reach consensus when you’re running Congress than it is when your principal task is trying to block initiatives from the other side.
When skeptics cite the greater unity among the party of Obama and Pelosi, that reflects the two prime advantages that Congressional Democrats enjoy. They have a president to set their ideological agenda, while their minority status makes it easier to agree upon legislative strategies to undermine any leadership efforts by the other side.
Even without the presidency, and despite the presence of a broad-based and rambunctious majority, Speaker Ryan has already demonstrated an encouraging capacity to bring about a high-level of Republican unity. May this success continue and expand in the months ahead, for the sake of the party and the good of the country.