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Can Paul Ryan save Erik Paulsen from Donald Trump?

Ryan is releasing a new GOP policy agenda that seems timed to give House candidates something to talk about besides “the nominee situation.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan introduced the anti-poverty planks of his new GOP platform at a news conference last week.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Does Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen have a Trump problem?

Democrats seem to think so. That’s why they were able to recruit a challenger as prominent as state Sen. Terri Bonoff to take on the usually safe Paulsen. Democrats figure having the Obama-hating, rabble-rousing, conspiracy-pushing Donald Trump at the top of the GOP ticket might be enough to get the country club Republicans of the Third Congressional District to either stay home — or even vote blue — giving them a good chance of unseating the district’s four-term incumbent.

But leave it to a Wisconsinite to disrupt the Minnesota Democrats’ grand plans. This summer, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is rolling out a GOP agenda for the country: called “A Better Way,” it’s an articulation of the conservative principles and policy points that Ryan and his allies plan to advance in Congress. You won’t find any references to building the wall or banning Muslim immigration in its pages, but you will find talk of the earned income tax credit.

With few legislative days left on Congress’ calendar, many are speculating that Ryan’s agenda isn’t intended so much as a roadmap for lawmaking as it is an alternative vision to the not-so-conservative candidacy of Trump.

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Offering up a major policy package now, the thinking goes, helps protect Ryan and his majority by giving candidates something concrete — and distinct from whatever policy Trump espouses — to run on.

It’s a plan that seems tailor-made to protect incumbents like Paulsen, who has emulated Ryan’s fiscal hawkishness and tax policy wonkery to generate his own political success. Running as a Ryan Republican, either explicitly or implicitly, could give Paulsen more credibility in advancing a more positive vision — and in distancing himself from Trump as much as possible.

A ‘confident America’

There’s nothing particularly new about the platform Ryan has put forth. It’s a distillation of ideas that the Speaker has advanced since being elected to represent Wisconsin’s 1st District in 1998 — a reformist viewpoint that emphasizes how conservatism might make government function more efficiently and effectively. The theme: a “confident America.”

So far, Ryan has introduced three planks — poverty, national security, and the economy — out of the six-part agenda. The other three areas are health care, tax reform, and the Constitution.

Ryan’s proposals on poverty — a signature issue for him — center around reforming welfare and benefit programs. His plan suggests expanding work requirements for people receiving welfare, food stamps, or housing assistance; it also proposes expanding the earned income tax credit, a federal tax break for poor and working households that is popular with Democrats as well.

His national security outlook — “defeat the terrorists, protect the homeland” is a tagline — is essentially what Americans have been hearing from Republicans for years. It advocates for better border security (no mention of wall, or who may pay for wall), bolstering cybersecurity, countering Russian influence and supporting NATO, as well as promoting free trade agreements.

The economic plank of the agenda primarily takes aim at government regulations, which Ryan argues have cost trillions in economic productivity. It also calls for an end to Wall Street bailouts, continued domestic production of energy, and rolling back the power of labor unions.

Comfortable territory for Paulsen

The issue areas line up very well with Paulsen’s profile as a legislator. As a member of the Ways and Means Committee — which Ryan chaired before being elected Speaker — Paulsen is actively involved in tax, trade, and healthcare policy. He’s most comfortable when he’s talking about tax reform and GDP growth rates.

In an interview with MinnPost, Paulsen expressed enthusiasm for Ryan’s agenda, saying the Speaker knows how to set a vision and communicate it to people. “That’s why I’m excited about these five, six, initiatives he’s doing,” Paulsen said.

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Paulsen said he has been involved in crafting some elements of the agenda in which he has expertise, and has attended meetings and offered feedback. He said that a few of his own projects, like his bill regarding health savings accounts, may make it into the platform.

Paulsen did not say that he found Ryan’s agenda — which has been in the works for some time — to be an explicit counter to Trump’s, but he did say, given its timing with Trump’s ascendancy, that it could become a viable alternative message for down-ballot GOP candidates.

“If the nominee situation is getting settled… I think Ryan says, I’m glad we’re putting together this agenda for our members to run on and be ready to go on given the circumstances,” Paulsen said. “It’s important for the House to be out front leading.”

‘Paulsen is going to give a monster hug to Paul Ryan’

For some politics-watchers, Ryan’s agenda presents a clear-cut opportunity for Paulsen to ignore Trump and run the kind of campaign he is most comfortable running.

According to Steven Schier, professor of political science at Carleton College, “Erik Paulsen is going to give a monster hug to Paul Ryan until the election’s over.”

“Paulsen is exactly the sort of Republican who needs Ryan’s help,” he said, citing the swingy nature of the district — it twice went for President Obama — and the strength of his challenger, Bonoff, one of the DFL’s most moderate, business-friendly legislators. Paulsen, Schier says, “needs a more forward-looking agenda than Trump has rhetorically supplied.”

Jim Meffert knows what Paulsen is like as a competitor — he ran against him in 2010 and was defeated. He said he thinks Paulsen would be fine without any Ryan agenda as a lifeline, but added that it’s probably welcome. “I think it helps him, if it gets difficult,” he said.

“This is set up for them to run on pretty explicitly. It’s the timing and the framing of it that are the most important parts… Clearly it’s the alternate campaign, someone here has to focus on policy, someone has to have an alternative narrative for the Republicans.”

Sixth District Rep. Tom Emmer disagrees, telling MinnPost he thinks the agenda is not about Trump. Still, he suggested it presents an opportunity for GOP candidates to put forth a more appealing message.

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“Republicans have been very good, at least recently, of being able to tell you about why the other guy’s ideas are so bad,” he said. “But this is about telling people what we have to offer and why our ideas offer people a better opportunity for a better life.”

Will people care?

Regardless of the extent to which Paulsen embraces his friend Ryan through November, it’s still unclear how much attention a policy platform from Washington will command in this highly unusual election cycle.

How much will voters care about welfare reform when Trump is seemingly igniting a fresh firestorm every day? And how damaging will that be for Paulsen, who Democrats are already trying mightily to tie to the billionaire?

That difficulty was on display last week, when Ryan was rolling out his poverty platform at a community center in D.C. Reporters had plenty of questions for him — but only about Trump, who Ryan had reluctantly endorsed days before.

But if there’s anywhere this policy platform — and its messenger — might succeed in protecting an incumbent, it’s probably the Minnesota 3rd, says Schier. Suburban and exurban America, he says, “is the natural base for Paul Ryan,” citing his advocacy of free trade as one thing that will play well in the district.

It is also a district that has not sent a Democrat to Congress since the presidency of John F. Kennedy, and might be more primed to open their ears to the Speaker’s vision of Republican governance.

Despite the fact that Ryan endorsed Trump, Schier says that the Speaker “is the voice of Republican continuity. If you look at what Ryan said about NATO, about dealing with China and immigration, that’s continuity. Paulsen’s clearly not in favor of the deviation that Trump is rhetorically championing right now.”

It’s also unclear how much Trump will actually hurt Paulsen. Though GOP leaders have real concerns about the Trump effect in districts like this one, it’s possible that voters here will not connect their representative to the nominee and continue to ticket-split, which they have done for some time.

Paulsen, for his part, is confident his constituents will be receptive to the campaign he plans to run. “Policy matters,” he said. “Minnesotans, more than any other state, people pay attention, people want you to work across the aisle.”

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“You can’t have campaigns that are driven about personality and that type of sensationalism. You’ve gotta have ideas about why you want to serve and govern.”

He’s even optimistic — if only cautiously — that Trump might borrow some of Ryan’s ideas, though the two disagree intensely on key issues like free trade, American interventionism, and entitlement reform.

“I’ve never met Donald Trump, but when leadership had that meeting, the goal was to engage him in policy and Paul Ryan took out the pie charts,” Paulsen said. “Trump and his team were pretty interested in this stuff. The fact that there’s interest bodes well.”

“Hopefully,” he let out a chuckle, “that will happen.”