- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 6, 2016

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan has only been in the top job five months, and he’s already managed to lose the good will of conservative activists who say the year-end spending deal that closed out the last session of Congress was a betrayal of principle.

The “omnibus” spending bill was Mr. Ryan’s first big opportunity as speaker, and to the grass-roots leaders gathered at the Conservative Political Action Conference last week, he blew it.

“The omnibus just did me in, I’ll tell you,” Larry Spitznagle, a North Carolina man attending CPAC, said. “Abortion, Planned Parenthood — everything was funded that Obama wants to do and is funded by the omnibus bill. And who passed that? The House of Representatives.”

Mr. Spitznagle said he’ll withhold final judgment, but said so far he’s not seen any signs that the House GOP has improved on Mr. Ryan’s watch.

Many of the other activists at CPAC said they see Mr. Ryan as a better alternative than former Speaker John A. Boehner, who stepped down last October, clearing the way for Mr. Ryan to ascend. Mr. Boehner’s last piece of business was agreeing to a major budget deal that hiked spending and approved a series of special-interest tax breaks.

The omnibus spending bill was then written to the levels of that budget — something Mr. Ryan had little control over. But where activists said he failed was in not winning more concessions in the omnibus.

Carl Heinold of Maryland said that he believes Mr. Ryan is a “good man,” but said his opinion of him also took a hit after the House GOP signed off on the spending package without putting up a good fight.

“It is like going to a Christian church all your life and this priest is up there preaching, and then you find out next week he is taking his kids down to have an abortion,” Mr. Hienold said. “It is such a turnaround. It is just like in-your-face shock.”

Mr. Ryan and GOP leaders have tried to assuage the concerns of activists by reminding them that Mr. Obama is stonewalling their campaigns with the veto pen, and urging the party to unite in the run-up to the November election to boost the party’s chances of winning back the White House.

For his part, Mr. Ryan has also devoted a significant amount of time and attention to promoting conservative alternatives to combating poverty — efforts that date back at least to his tenure as chairman of the House Budget Committee.

Rather than serve up red meat to the conservative grass roots, Mr. Ryan appeared at the conference Thursday as part of a question-and-answer session on the subject.

“We care about restoring the American idea, and that is [that] the condition of your birth does not determine the outcome of your life,” he said. “We are the only country founded on an idea. That’s the idea. That’s what it’s all about.”

Some activists are more forgiving.

Zack Smith of Florida said Mr. Ryan needs some more time to settle into the job.

“It’s a pretty short time frame so far,” Mr. Smith, 28, said. “He’s in a tough position, I think, but I definitely would like to see him kind of hold the line and not compromise on core issues.”

Austin Kaiser of Ohio said that Mr. Ryan and GOP leaders are “doing as good a job as they can to stand up to Obama.”

“Obama has the pen. He is waving the pen in front of these guys and saying, ‘If you don’t do what I am saying, I am doing an executive order anyhow.’ So Paul Ryan, he is an OK guy. I have nothing against Paul Ryan. I think he is a conservative. I think he is a lot more principled than Trump.”

It’s tough to gauge just how wide the disappointment is with Mr. Ryan.

The Washington Times/CPAC straw poll didn’t specifically ask about the new speaker, but did probe activists’ attitude toward Republicans in Washington overall, and the news wasn’t good for the GOP: Just 20 percent said they thought Republicans were doing “a good job fighting for conservative principles.”

That sort of anger has propelled Donald Trump to the front of the GOP presidential pack, and it could put him on a crash course with Mr. Ryan. Last week the speaker took the unusual step of weighing in on the presidential election by insisting Mr. Trump do more to put distance between himself and racist groups.

Mr. Heinold, who backed Mr. Trump in the Times/CPAC presidential preference straw poll, said Mr. Ryan still has a chance to show he can perform.

“If we get a Republican president, is he going to work with him?” Mr. Heinold said. “I will give him the benefit of the doubt, but I’d say I am leaning on the wrong side of him. He’s got to bring me back.”

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