Former House Speaker Paul Ryan urges GOP to return to Reaganism, end Trump fixation

Paul D. Ryan, speaking at a 2018 event, holds up one index finger.
Former House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), pictured in 2018, on Thursday gave the first in a series of Reagan Library speeches on the future of the Republican Party.
(Julio Cortez / Associated Press)

Former House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, a onetime rising star of the Republican Party who lost the battle over the soul of the GOP to Donald Trump, urged his party Thursday to end its preoccupation with the former president and revive its commitment to conservative values.

After years of lying low and only rarely publicly challenging Trump, Ryan, in an evening speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, described conservatives as at “a crossroads.”

“And here’s the reality that we have to face: If the conservative cause depends on the populist appeal of one personality, or on second-rate imitations, then we’re not going anywhere,” Ryan said. “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,” Ryan said, referring to Trump’s Florida residence, though he avoided criticizing Trump by name in his speech.

The speech gives Ryan, who had a cool relationship with Trump before and after quitting Congress in 2019, a higher-profile part in the small but increasingly vocal anti-Trump wing of the GOP. That wing drew broad national attention this month when House Republicans drummed Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming out of their leadership for refusing to stop criticizing Trump for lying about the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election.


GOP Reps. Liz Cheney and Elise Stefanik personify the choice facing the party: Remain defined by Trump or return to traditional conservative values.

Ryan’s latest swipe at Trump comes days after the former president was thrust into new legal peril, amid reports that New York prosecutors have convened a grand jury to decide whether to file charges against him and his business associates. The news was first reported by the Washington Post, and Trump denounced it in a statement on his website as “a continuation of the greatest Witch Hunt in American history.”

But despite that impending legal risk and a lower profile, Trump continues to hold a powerful grip on the GOP, as evidenced in his high poll ratings among Republicans and the sway of his endorsements in party primaries as many candidates try to mirror his style and promote his false narrative about the 2020 election.

Ryan’s speech — the first in a series of addresses the Reagan Library will host this year on the future of the GOP — is a reminder of how much Trump’s remaking of the GOP into a populist, isolationist, free-spending party marked the end of decades of reverence for the legacy of Reagan, whose signature agenda was a robust military and foreign policy, advancing free enterprise and limiting government.

The library series will also feature several potential 2024 presidential candidates, including three alumni of the Trump administration — former Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley — as well as Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan.

In his speech, Ryan criticized President Biden, calling him “a nice guy pursuing an agenda more leftist than any president in my lifetime.”

And he did have some praise for Trump’s accomplishments: “To his credit, Donald Trump brought many new voters into our party, and we want them to stay.”

But he said it was “horrifying to see a presidency come to such a dishonorable and disgraceful end” and he warned Republicans against overemphasizing divisive cultural issues.

“Sometimes these skirmishes are just creations of outrage peddlers, detached from reality and not worth anybody’s time. They draw attention away from the far more important case we must make to the American people,” he said.

“Culture matters, yes, but our party must be defined by more than a tussle over the latest grievance or perceived slight.”

If conservatives fail, Ryan said, “it will be because we gave too much allegiance to one passing political figure, and weren’t loyal enough to our principles.”

Tommy Gong, elections chief in San Luis Obispo County and a third-generation American, is targeted because of his ethnicity.

As House speaker, Ryan had risen to the highest ranks of GOP leaders in Congress and also was Mitt Romney’s vice presidential running mate in 2012, before he decided to retire in the middle of Trump’s term.

He played a big role in the passage of Trump’s 2017 tax cut but split with him on a number of other issues including Trump’s protectionist trade policies, his retreat from world affairs and his disregard for concerns about the growing budget deficit. In retirement, Ryan has taken some academic posts and served as a board member of Fox Corp., and has only occasionally spoken out in criticism of Trump.

Early this year, he denounced GOP efforts to challenge the electoral college results that gave Biden his 2020 victory, saying, “Efforts to reject the votes of the electoral college and sow doubt about Joe Biden’s victory strike at the foundation of our republic.”

He recently held fundraisers for Cheney and another outspoken Trump critic, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.).

A spokesman for Ryan said he was likely to “remain active by giving speeches about the direction of the Republican Party.”