Opinion

Speaker Paul Ryan is the Tea Party's greatest triumph

It's also something partisans of all stripes should be happy about

People of all political convictions should be excited about Paul Ryan's assumption of the House speaker's gavel. Even if you disagree with Ryan's fiscally conservative politics, you have to admit that the Wisconsin congressman is smart, focused on policy, and generally an honest broker. Regardless of your political affiliation, we should all be happy when the political process puts someone of this caliber in such an important job.

Which raises the question: How did we get such a good speaker?

The short answer is this: Credit the Tea Party.

Without the Tea Party, you wouldn't have the House Freedom Caucus, made up mostly of rambunctious, hardcore, conservative back-benchers. Without the rabble-rousing Freedom Caucus, John Boehner probably wouldn't have been driven to resign, and Kevin McCarthy probably wouldn't have been driven out of the speakership race. Paul Ryan is not exactly a Tea Party firebrand. But he is still highly respected within the Tea Party. And they paved the way to his speakership.

For all of the bleating in opinion columns about the supposed anti-intellectualism of the Tea Party, Ryan's policy seriousness is very much part of his movement appeal. Tea Partiers (and I count myself among them) are serious about reforming government, and a great many of them actually do understand that you need a serious plan to get it done, not just theatrics. People in the Tea Party also know they're often disdained as simpletons by elites on both sides of the aisle, and so they very much respect credentialed people who they feel are part of their camp. This is at least partly why the Tea Party likes Ted Cruz (former Supreme Court clerk!) and Ben Carson (former neurosurgeon!).

Another key: The conservative base feels betrayed by politicians they elect who then turn around to pass moderate policies, and they want to see credibility from politicians. The best way to assert credibility is by picking a fight on an unpopular issue. Paul Ryan first became a national figure because he took on entitlement reform, the third rail in U.S. politics. The Tea Party admires his bravery and honesty in sticking to his conservative principles, even when much of the American media and political establishment crush him for it.

I like John Boehner, but it's clear that he is an insider politician with little taste for serious policy wonkery. He lacks the courage to put forward an ambitious entitlement reform plan on his own. And so it was with the previous Republican speakers of the House. The Tea Party-backed Speaker Ryan, on the other hand, is serious about conservative ideas, and bold in promoting them.

I point this out because this isn't just true in the House. In general, the Tea Party has elevated a better class of politician. There's Marco Rubio, who has put forward innovative plans on taxes, on higher education, on jobs with wage subsidies, and, at least until he got cold feet, was a leader on immigration reform (another third rail). There's Rand Paul who, as a libertarian, is someone I don't agree with on every issue, but certainly brings much-needed representation of that perspective in the Senate (along with the admirable libertarian Justin Amash in the House, who personally explains every single vote on his Facebook page). There's Mike Lee who is quickly shaping up to be one of the most important policy leaders in the Senate, taking charge on everything from tax reform to criminal justice reform and even defeating the Big Government Egg Cartel in his spare time (bet you didn't know that was a thing).

There have been a few Tea Party misfires, like Ted Cruz and that "I'm not a witch" lady, but seven years into the Tea Party, it is now clear that overall, the movement has brought to Washington a class of politicians that, whether you agree with them on the issues or not, are a refreshing improvement over their establishment predecessors.

That's something everyone should celebrate. So keep it in mind next time you see another column about supposed Tea Party know-nothingism.

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