Monday morning in Washington was a chilly place to be if you were a man who imagined you might have been the one facing a Supreme Court justice with your right hand raised.
GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, by his own count, was seated about eight rows back from where he’d hoped to be on Inauguration Day. Instead of Mitt Romney, he was greeting the musician Jay-Z. (“He came up and shook my hand and was very friendly,” Ryan said later.)
When Ryan took his seat, the lawmaker seated next to him – who he wouldn’t name — leaned over. Who were Jay-Z and Beyonce, the lawmaker wanted to know?
That’s as handy a way as there is to describe the gulf that endures these days between Democrats and Republicans. The winners get to paint the day in the colors they choose. The losers sit eight rows back.
Ryan, who has been keeping a purposefully low profile in the weeks and months since he and Romney were handed their hats, reemerged this week to take center stage in the capital’s roiling budget debates.
During a breakfast meeting with a few dozen reporters sponsored by the Wall Street Journal, Ryan made clear he was back in the fray, sketching out his tactical plan for the budget. Unlike Romney, the eight-term Wisconsin Congressman had a high-profile perch to return to as chairman of the House Budget committee. Within hours of the election-night drubbing, Speaker John Boehner called him to reassure him the job was still his.
Ryan said he and Romney stay in touch by email, and the two planned to meet for lunch in Washington this week. But the junior member of the 2012 GOP ticket has clearly moved on.
Even so, Inauguration Day brought pangs. I asked him if looking at the back of the President Obama’s head during the ceremony caused him to despair.
“No,” he said. “I don’t despair. I think despair is wrong. I gave up despair for Lent last time.”
“Clearly, I thought about the woulda, coulda, shoulda,” he continued. “But…I already processed that thinking after the election, during the holidays, during the Thanksgiving and Christmas time, New Year’s time. And the thing is, I had to jump right back into work. So you basically have to dust yourself off and get back to work.”
But Ryan, and many other members of his party, knew that President Obama’s reelection was no small thing. The Obama team has plans – climate change, gun control, health care implementation. The Romney team had plans too. Tax reform. Energy policy. Entitlement reform. All sidelined.
“Now, knowing that that’s not going to happen, that is disconcerting,” Ryan told us. “That’s regretful.”
The Republican Party is engaged in a fairly public wrestling match with itself these days. There is no general agreement about why they lost or what to do about it now.
Ryan gave the Obama campaign credit for superior “technology and turnout,” suggesting that had the Republicans only explained themselves better, they would have been able to scrape together half a million votes in New Hampshire, Virginia, Ohio and Florida to win.
“We have to do a better job of explaining and demonstrating why we think our ideas are better for everybody,” he told us.
Other party leaders are offering prescriptions as well.
In some very pointed remarks, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal told a meeting of the Republican National Committee in Charlotte Thursday night that the fiscal fights in Washington are not the road to political recovery.
“We as Republicans have to accept that government number crunching – even conservative number crunching – is not the answer to our nation’s problems,” he said.
And RNC Chairman Reince Preibus told the same group that the party has to lick its wounds and move on. “It’s time to stop looking at elections through the lens of ‘battleground states,'” he said. “We have four years till the next presidential election, and being a ‘blue state’ is not a permanent diagnosis.”
But the gloom has not yet lifted. On the day after the 44th president was returned to office in front of a delirious flag-waving crowd, Boehner told a Republican gathering of tough times ahead.
“We’re expecting over the next 22 months to be the focus of this Administration as they attempt to annihilate the Republican Party,” he said. “And let me just tell you, I do believe that is their goal — to just shove us into the dustbin of history.”
If there are five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – the GOP is apparently still stuck between two and three.