Is Paul Ryan the savior of the Republican Party, or Washington’s most persistent Pollyanna?

Paul Ryan, the Janesville politician and Speaker of the House, had an unenviable summer. First he took lashings for his controversial endorsement of Donald Trump: Stephen Colbert, host of “The Late Show,” lampooned the congressman as a eunuch standing at Trump’s side, and Trump followed up by rubbing salt into the wounds. With Ryan facing a tougher-than-expected re-election fight, the Republican nominee withheld his endorsement, pushing Republican leaders to the brink. Ryan’s initial endorsement of Trump was the most painful kind of pragmatism: He didn’t want to run in 2016, and he also wanted the freedom to criticize Trump as a nominal supporter, not as a potential rival stoking wilder speculation with his every utterance. We spoke to Ryan in late July, as the story was still twisting and turning – and it continued to until our press time in early August – about the House GOP’s “Better Way” plan touching on health care, the economy, taxes and national security, a package that draws heavily on Ryan’s vision for a more constructive party.

If Hillary Clinton is elected, is your plan moot?

Well, yeah. The whole purpose of this plan is to show what we can accomplish with a Republican president. This is our 2017 plan, and we’re asking the country to give us the kind of government that can put this in place, and I do not believe Hillary Clinton will warmly embrace any of this.

The Clintons played a significant role in welfare reform in the 1990s. Is this an area you could work with Hillary Clinton on?

Bill Clinton did, and that was one program which was extremely successful. We have dozens of others that never were reformed like that, and I don’t see Hillary Clinton in the same camp, nor do I see her party in [it]. This is a party where Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are now the intellectual leaders of the progressive left.

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Do you have an ongoing dialogue with Donald Trump?

Yes. [Ryan later said that communication stopped after the Republican National Convention.]

There was a hope that you would act as a uniter between different Republican factions in the House. Have you accomplished that?

Absolutely. I think the best example is our Better Way agenda. Forming this agenda together was one of the most unifying things I’ve ever been involved in.

The reports you’ve put out so far don’t seem to some observers to be the most conservative. For example, the replacement for Obamacare includes a refundable tax credit. You could have done something more hawkish from a fiscal standpoint. Where do you see these proposals falling on the spectrum?

I don’t really look at them like that. I look at them as the best policy. There have been people who have been pushing for a tax deduction versus a tax credit. The key with a tax credit is you get support to people who need it the most, and that is those who can afford the least.

Your family has been in People Magazine. How are they adjusting to this extra level of exposure?

They’re fine; it’s not nearly as much as being on the [2012] ticket. My weekends are the same as they’d been before.

You may be the only male politician who gets questions about work-life balance.

I know. Well, I’m young. Everyone who had been in this job was an empty nester, in the modern era, and I’m the first person in this job with kids at home.

Are you in touch with any of the past House Speakers?

I see John [Boehner] every now and then. He’s still going out on the road and helping the Republican conference. And it’s hard not to run into Newt [Gingrich] from time to time. He’s everywhere.

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In the year 2016, how much electronic surveillance should people be prepared to put up with?

We need to have a strong debate about civil liberties and electronics and surveillance. That debate should never be settled, because we always should have a healthy tension between surveillance and civil liberties. And if we’re ever going to err, in my opinion, we should always err on the side of civil liberties.

‘Man of the House’ appears in the September issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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