Paul Ryan Teases Ideas But Stops Short Of Specifics In First Address As Speaker

He knows well the congressional art of speaking for a long time while saying nothing.

WASHINGTON -- In what seemed like it could be a significant address laying out a vision for his speakership, Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) came before several dozen of his House Republican colleagues on Thursday and largely deferred to them.

But maybe that's the point.

Gathered in the Great Hall of the Library of Congress for his first major address as speaker of the House, Ryan talked in generalities for roughly 30 minutes, delivering a speech that was both rhetorically brilliant and notably lacking in specifics.

Ryan did commit to unveiling a plan next year to replace "every word of Obamacare," and he expressed support for collapsing seven tax brackets into two or three, closing loopholes and cutting tax rates for everybody in the process.

But those promises aren't exactly new. In fact, most of what Ryan proposed -- including overhauling poverty programs that are meant to "lift people up" but only "hold people back" -- was recycled material from the Wisconsin congressman's earlier crusades against taxes and those poverty programs. In general, he refrained from actually pledging anything.

"Our No. 1 goal for the next year," the new speaker said, as ears in the marbled hall perked up, "is to put together a complete alternative to the Left’s agenda."

Whatever that means.

Ryan did take President Barack Obama to task for creating a divided country and a federal government that, he said, "has grown arrogant, condescending, and outright paternalistic."

"I don’t think many people are walking away from this presidency thinking, 'That went well,'" Ryan said, to some laughter.

"What we’ve seen these past seven years is the illusion of success."

But Ryan also said Republicans needed to move beyond demonizing and polarizing. In a speech that often felt like an indirect shot at some of the GOP presidential candidates, Ryan said it was possible to win a presidential election by turning out certain voters and hoping the other side stays home. "But to what end?" he asked.

"If we want to save the country, then we need a mandate from the people," he continued. "And if we want a mandate, then we need to offer ideas. And if we want to offer ideas, then we need to actually have ideas. And that’s where House Republicans come in."

If we want a mandate, then we need to offer ideas. And if we want to offer ideas, then we need to actually have ideas.

Instead of the top-down management that many House Republicans have complained about in recent years, Ryan seems more open to letting rank-and-file members come up with the legislation to fix what Republicans see as broken.

At home, he said, he wanted Americans to be confident that their jobs would pay well, that student debt would be worth it, and that years of paying taxes would be rewarded with Medicare and Social Security. Abroad, Ryan said Americans wanted a strong military and a confident country that stands for freedom -- "not with bluster or bravado, but with calm, steady action."

Ryan's overarching theme was that he wanted a "bold, pro-growth agenda" from Republicans. And even if he wasn't quite ready to go into the specifics on that agenda, he insisted that it was indeed audacious. 

"We are not here to smooth things over," he said. "We are here to shake things up."