Column: May clarity lead to charity? An idealistic view on Paul Ryan's election as Speaker of the House

Last week, Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin whom many may remember as Mitt Romney’s running mate in the 2012 Presidential Election, became the 54th Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. He is the right man for the job.

Dragooned to serve after the presumptive nominee -- House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) -- exited the race amidst turmoil from the Republican Party’s right-wing fringe, Ryan has served in the House since 1999, and most recently chaired the Ways and Means Committee, perhaps the most powerful position in the House other than Speaker.

His election offers “the People’s House” -- and thus the people -- a fresh start, a chance to reconsider the values of consensus and compromise, and an opportunity to embrace the new-found spirit of optimism that resonates within the chamber. 

Ryan truly does have the best chance of anyone to unite the Republican majority in the House, and thus articulate a true legislative agenda that aims to move the GOP from, in his words, “the party of opposition to the party of proposition.”

For too long, Republicans in Congress have made it their primary goal to stymie the agenda of President Barack Obama. From constant efforts to repeal Obamacare to manufactured crises over raising the debt limit, Ryan’s characterization of Republicans as “the party of opposition” is apt.

And unlike former Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), who aroused contempt from the Freedom Caucus -- a group of extreme conservatives who have advocated ridiculous measures including impeachment of President Obama -- due to an ostensibly despotic leadership style, Ryan holds credibility in that group without being muddied by its ludicrous policy priorities, holds reverence from the rank-and-file Republicans left voiceless by the Freedom Caucus’s filibustering agenda, and holds respect even on the left, which should help restore a constructive dialogue among the chamber conceived to represent the voice of the people.

In his inauguration speech, Ryan said, “We have nothing to fear from honest differences, honestly stated. A greater clarity between us can lead to greater charity among us.”

Those words conjure memories of another famous speech.

In his second inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln famously remarked, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds.”

Lincoln was referring to the wounds inflicted upon this nation by its Civil War over the issue of slavery and its intersection with states’ rights.

Ryan takes the reins of a chamber of Congress that has not experienced such gridlock and discontent since the time of Lincoln.

In 2011, historian Daniel Feller commented, “There have been plenty of times when the rhetorical heat has been high, sometimes higher than now. What's most amazing today is not fiery words, but the inability to do necessary business.

If nothing else, the inauguration of Ryan as speaker offers an aesthetic change that hopefully will catalyze a meaningful one.

He promises to return the role of legislating writing to the committees, not to leadership and think tanks. He promises to focus on process and planning rather than disaster and deadlines. And most importantly, he promises to unite a House divided by issues irrelevant to real Americans by focusing on issues that cry for attention, and seeking to achieve the venerable ideal of consensus.

Time will tell if he succeeds. Common sense says that 435 individuals -- most sitting in gerrymandered districts -- are likely to act out of self-interest rather than altruistic ambition.

Common sense says that voter participation is at all-time lows -- fewer than 20% of those eligible are expected to vote on Tuesday -- and that disenfranchisement is too high to expect real change in elections. 

But common sense would have said that subjects of the king upset over new taxes could not possibly have overthrown the British crown, and that even if they had, they would never have been able to build a stable democracy that would last for centuries to come.

Through consensus and compromise, America did just that.

Common sense would have said that a young democracy would never be able to survive a Civil War over an issue as ingrained in the American psyche and economy as slavery.

Through ambitious and charismatic leadership, America did just that.

At its best, America transcends common sense. 

At its worst -- its policies on Indian removal, slavery, and Japanese internment -- America abandons the ideals on which it was founded.

America today stands at a crossroads.

It has the choice between descending into perpetual partisan bickering or ascending into a new age of “clarity between us” leading to “charity among us.”

The election of Paul Ryan as Speaker of the House offers America an opportunity to -- once again -- rise above the constraints of common sense to achieve what is in the best interests of “we the people.”

And oddly, our last bout of "yes we can" notwithstanding, I have hope that under Ryan's leadership, we will. Call me crazy, but I'm still young enough to be a little idealistic and optimistic, right?

--Benjamin Pontz, LSNews.org Editor-In-Chief

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