Paul Ryan's plea for GOP unity is a familiar one

Paul Ryan on the past and future of the Repub... 05:12

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Illinois, said this week that he's open to serving as Speaker of the House - but he won't preside over a Republican conference that eats its own.

"We, as a conference, should unify now, and not after a divisive speaker election," he said Tuesday during a news conference at the Capitol in which he laid out his preconditions for becoming speaker. "[If] I can truly be a unifying figure, then I will gladly serve. And, if I am not unifying, that is fine as well."

Ryan also suggested he won't lead a band of GOP lawmakers more concerned with stopping Democratic policies than proposing their own.

"We need to move from being an opposition party to a proposition party," he explained. "Because we think the nation is on the wrong path, we have a duty to show the right one. Our next speaker needs to be a visionary one."

Given Ryan's potential ascent to the Speaker's chair, his pleas for party unity and proactive policy making have taken on some added significance: he wants to avoid the thicket of internal GOP politics that felled the outgoing speaker, John Boehner, and prevented his most obvious successor, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, from inheriting the post.

But it's not a new message for Ryan, who's been stressing both themes for years. During a September 24, 2014 appearance on "Face the Nation," Ryan was pressed on his criticism of some conservatives who engineered a government shutdown in 2013 by insisting on the defunding of Obamacare. (Ryan had labeled their strategy "flawed" and a "suicide mission" in his 2014 book.)

When Ryan was asked why he waited until 2014 to air those concerns, rather than expressing them in 2013, during the shutdown itself, he replied, "Because I want party unity."

"I don't think it was constructive for conservatives to be carping at each other," he explained.

Ryan also called on Republicans to offer a positive vision for America, rather than simply railing against President Obama's policies. "I don't think we can succeed if all we do is criticize and define what we are against," he said. "The purpose of this book is to show the country that we have better ideas. We need to define ourselves as what we are in favor of just as much as what we are opposed to. And, look, I don't like the track the country is on. I think we're on wrong track. And, as an elected leader, I feel I have an obligation to say what principles and policies I would put in place instead to renew the American idea and get the country going."

"What I am trying to do with this book is to help design a unified conservative Republican movement that is principled, inclusive and aspirational, so that we can win a majority of Americans' votes to save this country from what I believe is going down the wrong track," he added. "And so we need to articulate how we would apply the nation's founding principles to the problems of the day and how that those provide better solutions for the country going forward."

If Ryan does become Speaker, he'll be able to exert more control over the GOP's agenda than he's ever before enjoyed - a fact that could help him push the GOP to offer a positive, forward-looking policy vision for America.

But it's an open question whether the Speaker's chair job will help Ryan achieve his goal of GOP unity. It's relatively easy to urge warring Republican factions to lay down their arms when you're a lawmaker with no institutional responsibility to broker a peace. But when you're in charge of the conference, navigating the demands of competing factions falls on your shoulders. And pulling that off -- while ensuring your colleagues aren't training their fire on each other or, worse, on you - can be a tricky proposition.

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