In his new book, The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea Representative Paul Ryan offers some candid assessments of his party and himself.

On the former, he writes about the lead up to the government shutdown in October 2013, which he believed would be a “calamity for our party.” Mr. Ryan explains why the strategy couldn’t work, including the fact that because the Affordable Care Act is an entitlement, shutting down the government wouldn’t defund or eliminate it.

“The strategy our colleagues had been promoting was flawed from beginning to end,” he writes. “It was a suicide mission. But a lot of members were more afraid of what would happen if they didn’t jump off the cliff… We couldn’t afford to take a hit like that again [referring to the 1995 government shutdown] – not for a strategy that had no hope of advancing our core principles.”

Chairman Ryan was right, but a group of House Republicans – urged on by Senator Ted Cruz in particular – held out for a shutdown. It came. No core principles were advanced. And the reputation of the GOP dropped to new lows.

As for Ryan himself, he admits that his past use of the phrase “makers and takers” – meant to describe in shorthand people who are and aren’t receiving government benefits – was a mistake.

What was a taker? My mom, who is on Medicare? Me at eighteen years old, using the Social Security survivor’s benefits we got after my father’s death to go to college? My buddy John Ramsdell, who had been unemployed and used job-training benefits to get back on his feet?

We’re just lumping people in this category without any regard for their personal stories, I thought. It sounds like we’re saying that people who are struggling are deadbeats, as if they haven’t made it already or aren’t trying hard enough. emphasis in the original]

A political memoir and policy book that’s both candid and self-reflective, and at times even self-critical: That alone makes it rare and worth reading. Yet the book is significant for other reasons, including this one: Ryan, a political and intellectual leader of the GOP, uses The Way Forward to help Republicans and conservatives recast their approach, at least just a bit.

Chairman Ryan’s purpose in writing the book, at least as I understand it, is to describe what government can do to advance a conservative vision of the good society. This involves more than simply cutting government — though Ryan, to his credit, has offered the most comprehensive and realistic plan of any Republican to re-limit government.

He wants to reform government in fundamental, structural ways, to move us away from centralized bureaucratic planning and control toward more competition and choice, greater efficiency and innovation. This needs to be done not for ideological reasons but for eminently practical ones: to improve the lives and increase the opportunities for Americans in every social and economic stratum.

Mr. Ryan, a man of impeccable conservative credentials, wants Republicans to focus not just on the size of government but its purposes. He wants the GOP to act in ways that refute rather than reinforce certain stereotypes. He understands, too, that the Republican Party has to do more than amp up the rhetoric in ways that bring true believers to their feet. Energizing base voters is a pre-condition for a party’s political success, but Republicans also need to persuade millions of people who are not now voting for them at the presidential level to do just that. “Preaching to the choir isn’t working,” is how he puts it, “and by the way, the choir is shrinking.”

How to expand the choir and add new voices to it; that is in part what The Way Forward attempts to do, and does quite well.

The Republican Party needs to be the party of the 21st century — the party of reform and modernization; of upward mobility and educational excellence; that rewards work and opposes corporate welfare; that cares for the weak and vulnerable while speaking for middle class concerns and to middle class aspirations. It needs to have a real agenda when it comes to health care, higher education, legal and illegal immigration and the long-term unemployed.

That’s one part of the equation; but there’s another part, too.

Political parties are also defined by tone and countenance, spirit and bearing, and by whether its most public figures come across as winsome or joyless, authentic or contrived, at ease with the world or raging against it. Right now the way many people see political parties in general, but the GOP in particular, as antipathetic, rigid, and out of touch.

Paul Ryan’s book, and Paul Ryan himself, are antidotes to those impressions. His fellow Republicans would be wise to once again follow his lead.

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