Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is fighting an uphill battle to keep the focus on the GOP’s tax cuts and the economy in the face of a news cycle dominated by President Trump ’s White House.
Ryan has aggressively talked up the benefits on the tax cuts, promoting the law last week in a conference call with a group backed by GOP donors Charles and David Koch and in a visit to Home Depot’s Store Support Center in Atlanta.
But it can be a challenge for Ryan to win the spotlight given competition in the news cycle — from Trump’s decision to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un, to Trump’s decision to defy his party and impose steep tariffs on steel and aluminum, to the news about his alleged affair with porn star Stormy Daniels.
“You know I must say, it’s great to see all the media interest in the success of tax reform,” Ryan joked at the start of his comments at House Republican leadership’s press conference on Tuesday. He then fielded questions exclusively about the tariffs, which were made official on Thursday.
Before the new tax law passed, Ryan traveled the country arguing that it would help the economy and the middle class. On Friday, the Department of Labor announced the economy added than 300,000 jobs in February, a boon to the Ryan argument.
“We’re very excited about the outcome of tax reform because what is now happening in America is precisely what we were hoping would happen in America by passing tax reform,” he said Thursdayat the Atlanta Home Depot.
At Tuesday’s House GOP leadership press conference and Wednesday’s conference call with the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity (AFP), Ryan extolled on the law.
“What we’re seeing is it’s helping families save for college, it’s helping families put money away, it’s putting money in people’s pockets,” he said Tuesday.
Yet the news on jobs didn’t dominate on cable. And at the Home Depot visit, Ryan was asked about the $130,000 payment that Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, made to Daniels during the 2016 election in order for her to keep quiet about the alleged affair.
A reporter asked the speaker if he agreed with Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) that the controversy is a big deal.
Ryan replied, “I haven’t put a second of thought into this. It’s just not on my radar screen.”
Another topic that came up during the Atlanta press conference was the Georgia state legislature nixing a tax break for Delta because they ended a discount for National Rifle Association members. Ryan declined to comment but said that focus on the NRA is “overblown.”
Ryan’s responses to questions about the news of the day tended to overshadow his efforts to tout the tax cuts.
GOP strategists and supporters of the new tax law say that Ryan’s focus on taxes is a good strategy.
“While it can be very difficult to punch through the national media, highlighting the tax bill at a time when there are other issues dominating the news, it’s still important and really smart to stay on message regarding the importance of tax reform,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist who is an informal advisor to the House and Senate Republican leadership.
Bonjean added that Ryan’s persistence in talking about the tax law may give him a chance of getting national media coverage on the issue but importantly will help him get coverage of the topic in local news outlets in areas important to the midterms. And Bonjean also said that Ryan’s efforts are serving as an example for others in the GOP conference.
“By him flying the tax reform flag constantly, members of the Republican conference will likely follow suit and carry their message back home themselves,” Bonjean said. “Because if the leadership isn’t doing it then the direction isn’t set and it becomes very confusing.”
Ryan spokesperson AshLee Strong said selling the tax plan is easy for Ryan.
“It’s not hard to sell a law that is resulting in lower energy costs, bonuses, pay increases, and a tax cut of over $2,000 for the typical family of four,” she said.
AFP President Tim Phillips said the tax law is “a once in a generation accomplishment, so it should be discussed at length.” His group is in the midst of holding 100 town halls about the law.
“We’re certainly doing our part to make sure we get outside the Washington bubble, and Speaker Ryan is smart to do the same thing,” he said.
The midterm elections are expected to be challenging for Republicans, given that Trump’s approval rating is low and the president’s party typically loses seats in the contests.
Democrats’ advantage in the generic ballot narrowed shortly after the tax law was enacted, but recently has started to increase as other issues have gained the spotlight. Polling showed an increase in support for the tax law following enactment, but recent surveys show support levels flat-lining.
Randy Bryce, a Democrat running against Ryan for his congressional seat, called the speaker’s trip to Atlanta “another transparent P.R. stunt” and argued that the new law’s benefits mostly go to the wealthy.
GOP strategist Ford O’Connell said Ryan is right to tout the tax cuts and the economy, but doing so may not provide Republicans the boost they need everywhere.
“The tax bill and the economy are not yet resonating in the way that the White House would like it to,” he said.
Ryan expressed confidence that he can sell the tax law to members of public, noting that businesses are announcing bonuses and expansions and most people are getting tax cuts.
“We know that the evidence is here, reality is here, truth is being told, and that we’re convinced and confident that we’re going to be able to tell this story,” he said on the AFP call. “People see it. They see it [with] their own eyes, they see it in their own paychecks.”