WHEN: Today, Thursday, March 17th
WHERE: CNBC.com's Speakeasy with John Harwood
With his youthful earnestness, genial personality and devotion to conservative policy, Paul Ryan enjoyed a special stature within GOP even before he became House speaker late last year. John Boehner had resigned in frustration with his fractious caucus, and colleagues pressed Ryan to take over the job, three years after his unsuccessful bid as Mitt Romney's running mate. Now the raucous 2016 presidential race — which Ryan considered, then decided not to enter — is posing fresh challenges. Criticizing some statements by GOP front-runner Donald Trump but pledging to support him if nominated, Ryan has been leading his colleagues toward developing their own conservative agenda to be unveiled before this summer's Republican convention. The 46-year-old Irish-American speaker sat down with me this week to discuss those challenges over a glass of Guinness in the Capitol, hours after he hosted President Barack Obama and Ireland's prime minister at a luncheon.
A partial transcript from Speakeasy with John Harwood featuring Paul Ryan follows. All references must be sourced to CNBC.com:
JOHN HARWOOD: We do have a clear frontrunner in the Republican race. You and Donald Trump, how's that going to work?
PAUL RYAN: We'll make it work if it happens. I'm going to speak my mind. I'm going to defend conservatism as I understand it. I'm going to defend our ideas as the Republican party. But we're going to have to work with whoever our nominee is.
JOHN HARWOOD: How do you take into account, as you shape your agenda, the voices of Republican voters as expressed in these primaries so far?
PAUL RYAN: It's bottom up here in the house. So every one of our members of the House Republican Conference is working on this agenda, participating in assembling this agenda based on getting influence and input from their own constituents. How do we assemble these issues—
JOHN HARWOOD: But you're absorbing the messages of these primaries so far?
PAUL RYAN: Every member of Congress, that's what we do. If you're in the House, you are from the people. You are grassroots. You're elected every other year. And out of that come these solutions which we're going to take to the country and say, "Here is what we will do if you, our fellow citizens, give us the ability to put it in place. Here's how we get America out of the rut we are in."
JOHN HARWOOD: Are you exploring in your agenda funding the construction of a border wall?
PAUL RYAN: That, remember, we're not going to pay for that, recall? We think we should secure the border, that's for sure.
JOHN HARWOOD: So maybe not a big wall?
PAUL RYAN: Look, I'll let you talk to – you should talk to the task force as to exactly how we think we should secure the border. But one thing that does unify all Republicans is we should have a secure border.
JOHN HARWOOD: On the issues of trade and entitlement reform, isn't the message that Republican voters have been sending, that they want something more from the Republican party than simply freer markets and less government?
PAUL RYAN: We are in a global economy, whether we like it or not. And we believe, I believe, that America should be at the table of writing the rules of the global economy instead of China.
JOHN HARWOOD: The messages of those voters is "no more trade deals." You're saying, "That's not what House Republicans believe."
PAUL RYAN: I don't think that that's necessarily the message. They say no more bad trade deals, they say good trade deals. Donald Trump says, "Let's have good trade deals." So I don't think people are saying, "Put up a wall and stop trading with the rest of the world." How can you do that if we're 5% of the world's population?
JOHN HARWOOD: Donald Trump does say, "Do not touch Social Security and Medicare, we don't need to do that."
PAUL RYAN: I believe that if we do not prevent Medicare from going bankrupt, it will go bankrupt. And that will be bad for everybody. We have to tackle our debt crisis. We have to tackle the drivers of our debt, upcoming debt. And I think I hope that whoever our standard bearer's going to be will acknowledge that.
JOHN HARWOOD: But if presidential leadership is the indispensable ingredient for entitlement reform, as everybody's said and has for a long time, doesn't it mean if you nominate and elect a candidate who says, "Don't touch them," it's not going to happen?
PAUL RYAN: Well, I'd like to think that he will see what is going on with these programs.
JOHN HARWOOD: He says don't touch anybody.
PAUL RYAN: Well, I disagree with that. I think for younger people like myself, they're not going to be there for my generation when we retire. You have to change these benefits to prevent them from going bankruptcy.
JOHN HARWOOD: But Donald Trump is running against candidates in the Republican primary who agree with you on entitlement reform and beating them. What does that mean?
PAUL RYAN: Yeah, well, I think he's beating them for lots of reasons. Do we have a debt crisis coming in America? Yes, we do. Should we do something to prevent that from happening? Yes, we should.
JOHN HARWOOD: On taxes, your predecessor as Ways and Means chair, Dave Camp, when he came out with a comprehensive tax reform a few years ago, he adopted as a principle that it was going to be distributionally neutral. It wasn't going to advantage any group over the current system. Is that still a principle that you think is appropriate for –
PAUL RYAN: Yeah. So I do not like the idea of buying into these distributional tables of what you're talking about is what we call static distribution. It's a ridiculous notion. What it presumes is life in the economy is some fixed pie, and it's not going to change. And it's really up to government to redistribute the slices more equitably. That is not how the world works. That's not how life works.
JOHN HARWOOD: And you're not worried because—
PAUL RYAN: You can shrink or expand the economy, and what we want to maximize is economic growth and upper mobility so that everybody can get a bigger slice of the pie so we can have more economic growth.
JOHN HARWOOD: But you're not worried that those blue collar Republican voters who are voting in the primaries right now are going to say, "Hey, wait a minute. You're taking care of people at the top more than you're taking care of me."
PAUL RYAN: Most people don't think, "John's success comes at my expense." Or, "My success comes at your expense." People don't think like that. Bernie Sanders talks about that stuff. That's not who we are.
RYAN ON INDEPENDENT HOUSE
JOHN HARWOOD: Traditionally, when a party's not in the White House you got a whole lot of voices in the party.
PAUL RYAN: Yeah.
JOHN HARWOOD: But all that gets clarified and the party gets defined once you have a nominee. And the party accepts that the definition the nominee puts on the party. Is that going to happen this year?
PAUL RYAN: Well, before Iowa caucus started, before the field even firmed up as to who was necessarily running for president, we made a decision here in the House to do things differently this year. So this has nothing to do with any particular person running for president. We made a decision, based on partly my experience in 2012, which is, if we do as you just said, John, you wait until the nominee is selected at the convention, then you run together, and then you present a unified front and a platform to the country, it's too late by then. If you wait until August or September to then tell America, "Here's who we are, this is what we believe," it gets lost in the shuffle, the narrative is already set.
JOHN HARWOOD: You and your House Republican colleagues are not going to be defined by the Republican nominee for president.
PAUL RYAN: What we believe we owe the country, because we are the opposition party, and we don't think the country is headed in the right direction, is a very different direction. And we need to work on those ideas now. And we need to roll them out in the Spring, so we can spend all of our Summer and all of our Fall talking to our fellow men and women in this country, talking to our fellow citizens and giving them a clear choice. So this is not an attempt to differentiate ourselves with the nominee. This is our attempt to lay the field for whoever the nominee is, so that the Republican Party is the party of ideas and solutions, taking our conservative principles, applying them to the problems, and showing what they are.
JOHN HARWOOD: You guys are moving on an independent track.
PAUL RYAN: Yes, we believe that whoever our nominee, is going to be comfortable with where we're going because we're using our party's principles to assemble this agenda.
RYAN ON A DIVIDED GOVERNMENT
JOHN HARWOOD: Your predecessor, John Boehner, came up with a budget deal at the end of his term, which you then passed. But all of your Republican presidential candidates denounced the deal, said it was a terrible deal. If you can't persuade your colleagues among leaders in the Republican Party that you're doing the right thing with deals like that, how can you govern?
PAUL RYAN: We're coming to the end of the stress of what I call a divided government. You have a conservative Congress on the one hand, and a very liberal, progressive president on the other hand. And we're coming to the end of this. And it's the nerves are very frayed. I feel them myself. I really believe what we need is a clarifying election in this country, to ask the men and women who are citizens of this nation, to break this impasse. We have a broken, divided government that isn't fixing the big problems facing our country. And if we keep this broken, divided big government going as it is, these problems get out of control. They go beyond our ability to fix them on our own terms as a nation.
JOHN HARWOOD: So what do you do if a Democrat wins the presidency?
PAUL RYAN: So let me just finish my point. What I believe we do is we take an agenda to the country and say, "This is what we think we need to do to fix this country's big problems. This is how we prevent a debt crisis. This is how we grow the economy. And then we let the country make a decision. And if we win the kind of election that we're hoping to win in 2016, not unlike what Ronald Reagan, and my mentor Jack Kemp did in 1980, then we will have earned a mandate from the country to put these things in place. If, then, on your scenario—
JOHN HARWOOD: You hold the House and the Democrats win a president.
PAUL RYAN: Yeah, and we have divided government, then we're just going to have to figure out how to make it work. But I think it's going to be a whole – it's going to be more of the same. That's the frustration. What we're worried about is having more of the same, which is all these big problems that are facing our country that are piling up, they're still fixable. If we have another presidency like this presidency, then I really do worry that the best days will be behind us, and that's the problem. If we have divided government, we're going to have to figure out how to make it work and it won't be nearly as good as if we have unified government to give us the ability to fix these problems.
RYAN ON IMMIGRATION
JOHN HARWOOD: Your Irish heritage is important to you.
PAUL RYAN: That's why we're here today.
JOHN HARWOOD: It's important to the country. But Irish immigration wasn't always universally popular.
PAUL RYAN: Yeah, that's for sure—
JOHN HARWOOD: There was tension. There was a lot of discrimination. Census Bureau says the United States is going to be a majority minority country by 2044. What would you say to Republicans as to how they should feel about that?
PAUL RYAN: This is the first nation built on an idea, not on an identity. Not on an identity on class, on race, on religion, on an idea. The condition of your birth doesn't determine the outcome of your life. Our rights our natural. They're God-given. They're pre-government. It's a very special notion. That's what's great about this country. And immigration is based on assimilation over our common understanding of these beautiful ideas. That is still the country we are today.
JOHN HARWOOD: Do you think the current debate within the Republican Party is bringing Americans along behind that idea?
PAUL RYAN: It depends on who you're talking about. I think it depends on who you're talking about. I think we're having a – now, there's some legitimate problems with immigration, which is we don't have control of our border. ISIS is coming to kill us. Heroin is poisoning our children. This is a real problem. So those are issues that really do actually need to be dealt with. We should change our immigration laws so that they can be enforced, so that they're effective, and so that we're in control of who's coming into the country.
JOHN HARWOOD: See, I'm not disagreeing—
PAUL RYAN: I think that's totally legitimate.
JOHN HARWOOD: I'm not disagreeing with your idea. Your idea is a beautiful idea. I'm suggesting that maybe we're hearing from a lot of Americans who don't share that idea.
PAUL RYAN: Well, I don't know about that. I think what we're hearing from are people who are really anxious, and they're worried about their future. And so when they see open borders or porous borders where the rule of law is not even being applied, they're very concerned. So I don't think this is about race or culture. I think this is about whether we are continuing this beautiful American idea, or whether we're fracturing as a country.
JOHN HARWOOD: Here's to continuing the American idea.
PAUL RYAN: In Gaelic it's called Sláinte. Sláinte.
RYAN ON ELECTION TONE
JOHN HARWOOD: You mentioned your, old hero/mentor, Jack Kemp. This has not been a primary campaign that sounds like Jack Kemp.
PAUL RYAN: I think that's for sure, I would agree with you on that—
JOHN HARWOOD: And you have spoken out on that on several occasions, to say you don't like the tone. If people like you speak out, condemn things that you think are offensive in the campaign, but nevertheless say you're going to support the candidate doing those things as the nominee, aren't you proving him right when he says, "I could walk down Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I'm not going to lose support."
PAUL RYAN: No, because I have to respect the primary voter. I have to respect the citizens of this country, and the member of the Republican Party who goes to the polls in Wisconsin, Ohio, or wherever to select the nominee. I have to respect that process. We don't have brokered anything. It's the primary voter who chooses it. But I am a conservative. I am a pro-growth, happy where Constitutional, limited government conservative. So going to speak out for what I believe in. The kind of inclusive, aspirational, optimistic politics which unites people. The kind of politics that I abhor, that I reject, which I think the president has played very successfully, is identity politics. Politics that I think, at the end of the day, is paternalistic and condescending. Politics that speaks to people in ways that divide them from one another, that divides people in this country. The left shouldn't do it, and neither should the right. And I think it's wrong when either side does it, and that's why I speak out on these things when I see that happening. But at the end of the day, the Republican primary voter gets to make the decision on who their standard bearer is.
JOHN HARWOOD: And you have to follow that decision.
PAUL RYAN: It's not my decision, it's their decision.
JOHN HARWOOD: No, but it's a decision on who you support, who you are going to say, "I'm for this person."
PAUL RYAN: Yeah, I'm the Speaker of the House. I represent everybody here in Congress, I represent Wisconsin first district, and as the co-chair of the convention, I respect the rules.
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