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Republican Paul Ryan, former speaker of the house and congressman from Wisconsin, has kept a low profile since his departure from national politics earlier this year. Judy Woodruff sat down with Ryan during a Sunday event in Colorado to discuss which 2020 Democrat is the biggest threat to President Trump, why more Republicans don’t challenge the president and the “polarized” state of the country.
Republican Paul Ryan served in Congress for more than 20 years, ran for vice president, and, until six months ago, was speaker of the House. He walked away from all of that last year, when he chose not to seek reelection.
Now he is a private citizen who comments very rarely about politics.
Judy Woodruff had a chance to speak with him last night at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado.
Where are Americans right now, in terms of how they think about politics and how they think about government?
So if you turn on the TV, or if you especially look at Twitter, you're going to pull your hair out. But if you look underneath that, or what I always try to tell our members is, don't pay attention to all the white noise, do your work, things, for the most part, still get done, the system still works, the checks and balances do work.
And let's talk about economically. Where do you see us right now, as a country? How strong is the economy?
That's what I feel good about.
So, look at our growth rates. Wages are at the fastest growth rate than they have been in 10 years. We have got great productivity. We have more job openings in America than people looking for jobs in America. People are getting out of college and getting good jobs.
We have low inflation, fast economic growth, and the kind of growth we're looking for when we did tax reform gets us the kind of productivity increases we wanted.
But in terms of the economy, for President Trump, for the Republicans up for reelection, how important is it that growth — what difference does it make whether growth is 3 percent, as you said, or what if it were 1 percent or 1.5 percent?
The economy has a great, great deal to determine whether or not a person gets reelected as president of the United States. That's why I think it's Trump's to lose, because of the economy, because of how good the economy is doing.
And more importantly, it's the economy in sectors or in parts of our society that haven't seen growth.
And let's talk about trade for a minute, President Trump's signature issue.
This has been become — is now the Republican Party the protectionist party?
I hope not.
I think if you stand still on trade, you will fall behind because other countries will go out and get better trade agreements between themselves, and we will lose markets.
The president and I have not agreed on a lot of these issues. I didn't want to pick fights with our allies like North America and Canada, but I absolutely agree with his decision on China. That is one where I always believe that's a fight we need to fight because they're not playing by the rules.
The president has focused a massive amount of attention on immigration. Is the GOP now the anti-immigration party?
No, it's not.
There's a legitimate problem on the southern border, no two ways about it, absolutely a serious problem. But we also have an utterly broken system. You know, we have these per-country caps. Indians are waiting for, like, 30 years to get green cards. And it just doesn't really make a whole lot of sense.
If we can get this immigration issue fixed, then I think we're going to be in really, really good shape.
You now have, what, families coming across the border in record numbers. We are reading these heartbreaking stories every day practically about children separated from their parents, some of them in terrible conditions.
I mean, how can this be happening in the United States of America?
We need to change our asylum laws. They give the perverse incentive that, if you just can come over or say the right thing, then you can come into the country. So there really isn't an effectual border. So we need to tighten up these asylum laws.
I want to ask you more about the Republican Party.
When you were getting into politics, there was this, as you — and you have alluded to this — this really fierce debate going on in the Republican Party between being inclusive and not being inclusive.
Has the not-inclusive side won?
Yes, there's different labels you can throw around here, but I — yes, aspirational, inclusive politics is not winning the day these days.
But I would say this is happening on both sides of the aisle. What I fear is occurring here is we have what I call these entertainment wings of our parties and the — do you guys know I'm talking about?
So you have the entertainment wings, which you can make a lot of money, a person can make a lot of money on polarization. I don't see hopeful, inclusive politics. I see people kind of angry running for office.
And that, to me, is something that we're going to have to try and hopefully change.
Well, I was going to ask you about this later. But does that explain why Joe Biden is leading in the polls?
I think he's the one exception. He is the only one who is kind of running what I would call a centrist type of campaign. And all the other ones are running hard to the left.
And I think that's going to help the president, frankly. And Joe's going to get hit from both sides. And whether he can endure and stick on to that for a year-and-a-half is anybody's guess.
The president — and this is why I think it's his to lose — he's got this great economy, he's got this great record of accomplishment underneath him.
Why haven't more Republicans stood up to President Trump when they disagree with him?
He and I had plenty of arguments over the phone, in person over lots of issues.
And I found — actually, I think he appreciated — and then when he didn't read about in the paper the next day, I think he appreciated it, and I think it was more successful.
So I think a lot of Republicans have kind of learned, air your grievances personally and privately, and you will have a better success at achieving what you're trying to achieve.
How much more disagreement is there with him or with his policies than what we see on the surface?
More than you think.
Is the GOP now clearly the party of Trump, the party of Donald Trump?
I cannot tell you how many times, just running around America, particularly in Wisconsin, where people who really didn't participate in politics much at all before said, that guy speaks to me, that guy actually is doing something that's making a difference in my life.
So it's guttural. And I know people see, oh, my God, this Twitter and the things he said about this person and that person just drives people nuts. What that base Republican voters sees, this guy's not backing down, and he's fighting for me.
And setting a good example for children, for the next generation?
I answered your question.
I said I answered your question.
The Republican Party was the party of Ronald Reagan for long after he was in office. Is that going to be the case with the Republican Party?
I don't know the answer to that.
Is Trumpism or whatever…
I think it depends on if he has — I think it's his to lose, like I said.
But if he's the president for eight years, yes, that's probably likely the case.
Paul Ryan, thank you very much.
You bet. You bet. Thank you, Judy.
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Broadcast journalist Judy Woodruff is the anchor and managing editor of the PBS NewsHour. She has covered politics and other news for five decades at NBC, CNN and PBS.
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