May 6, 2016
Paul Ryan isn’t on board. Yet. He’s not #NeverTrump, at least not officially. Instead, he’s #NotReadyForTrumpJustYet. Presumably, the Speaker has thought his strategy through. Ryan is not known for rash decisions. He moved carefully to take his current job, and has received more criticism for timidity and delay than recklessness and haste in that role.
He had four choices. Denounce Trump. Endorse Trump. Very weakly endorse Trump. Say he’s not ready to endorse Trump. This fourth choice is relatively unique. Some Republicans have opted for denouncing. Many have endorsed. Another large group, led by Mitch McConnell, have attempted to one up each other for most tepid endorsement ever (if that’s a thing.)
Ryan is on a bit of an island. He’s consciously decided to hold this open as an issue. Some of the others are either directly linking themselves to Trump, be it for electoral gain (those up for election in Trump-friendly districts/states), a chance to get back in the game (hello Newt Gingrich), or because they’re old pals.
Some are making their continuing opposition known (Bush family, Mitt Romney, et al), while others like John McCain are walking a tightrope. The Arizona Senator faces a tough re-election race with many of the voters he needs pro-Trump while other swing voters are anti-Trump.
The vast majority of these individuals have either avoided ambiguity or specifically chose a muted, vague response in the hopes this would go as far away as it can (not very far at that.) Ryan doesn’t have this option. He’s the second most important Republican in the country, at least until Trump names a running mate, and quite likely even after.
He has definite policy and ideological goals. Ryan has spent his entire adult life in D.C. In his interview yesterday, he name checked Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, and Jack Kemp. The two most popular GOP presidents and his personal mentor. Ryan definitely sees himself acting in their tradition. Especially as the highest ranking Republican in the land, he’s now a protector.
More than a few Republicans are somewhere between vexed and horrified at the turn of events over the past year, but none have more at stake than Ryan. Most Trump opponents have way more of a past than future. Most Trump supporters have more of a past than future (at least than a Donald-free future.) Most of those staying relatively quiet hope to have a future.
Ben Sasse of Nebraska is the most militantly anti-Trump of the batch of Republicans with a future. With Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz getting knocked down a peg, and Scott Walker never reaching the track, Sasse, Mike Lee of Utah, and Nikki Haley are part of the crop of potentials for 2020.
Haley has recused herself from being a VP candidate, but is in the very soft endorsement crowd. Lee took a missed shot at moving up the Senate ranks recently and was one of Ted’s few peer endorsements, but hasn’t attacked Trump aggressively. Sasse is the one and only figure in his cohort to shout #NeverTrump from the ramparts.
Ryan can’t go that far. By virtue of his position, he’s chairman of the convention in Cleveland. Denouncing the nominee would cause all sorts of problems unless he’s planning on abandoning his role of Speaker going forward. But it’s likely he’s only slightly more comfortable with Trump than Sasse, just more constrained due to his leadership position.
What happens next?
Continuing our game of choose your own adventure, Trump will either make real strides to win him over, or not. I’m 95% sure the answer is not. His initial response was to say he wasn’t ready for Ryan’s agenda, and the next time The Donald backs down in a situation like this is the first. It’s a crucial part of his brand.
Assuming Trump decides not to back down, Ryan has three choices. Pretend Trump has checked the remaining boxes, and jump on board anyway. Continue to say he’s hoping he can support the nominee once he makes a few changes. Go to war.
Ryan would like to avoid the war. Ideally, Trump would modify and/or modulate himself slightly. Ryan would roll out his fall agenda for House members (and senators) who aren’t in Trump bastions to run on and behind. Trump wouldn’t endorse the Ryan agenda, but wouldn’t slam it either. Ryan would give an extremely limited endorsement.
They would each have a little bit of ambiguity, so pro-Ryan candidates could run on his platform, Trump could run on his detail-free plank, and each side could tell voters a vote for them is a vote for a great future. There’s even a way to avoid much policy conflict.
The Ryan platform can avoid much discussion on trade. It can avoid discussing foreign intervention. It can skip immigration reform. There are still plenty of remaining topics like prison control and deficit reduction. It’s technically possible for each group to move forward without causing insane amounts of conflict, and building just enough confusion for the maximum amount of voters to think the candidates agree with them.
Do not count on this outcome. Trump will want Ryan to either sublimate himself to the nominee or declare himself an opponent, so he can run against him and prove he’s above party. The ability to say he might come around on Trump if only….goes away once the convention starts. By then he’s either awkwardly with him or against him.
That leaves giving in, at least lightly endorsing Trump without getting much in return, or going to war. Neither of these are savory. If he gives in, Ryan will look weak. If Trump wins in November, he’s already put the speaker in his place. If Trump loses, Ryan has given up his potential role as voice of the opposition. He’d wind up the latest in a long list of once-promising GOP leaders turned casualities in 2016.
War is unprecedented. Many prominent Republicans avoided or spoke out against Barry Goldwater in 1964. Democrats controlled Congress. There was no majority to protect. Many leading Democrats had serious reservations about George McGovern and he failed to unify the party. But they didn’t speak out against him. Richard Nixon made no attempts to tie himself to building a Senate or House majority.
Even with his landslide victory, the GOP made no progress in down ballot races. This time Hillary Clinton is attempting to use Republican friction and the threat of Trump to win back the Senate and put the House in play.
If Ryan goes to war, he’s taking a big risk. With Trump and Clinton so unpopular, Ryan could wind up the most savory of the three just by not being one of the other two. However, he lacks their ability to command media attention. The official RNC apparatus is rallying behind Trump and cannot risk abandoning their nominee.
Having stepped lightly around the House Freedom Caucus, without taking overtly strong action against congressional Democrats, Ryan can’t give in to Trump without losing any remaining influence. Presumably, Trump is very aware of this. With Romney and Team Bush already showing their cards, he’s prepared to run against parts of the GOP establishment anyway. It’s how he got this far.
Ryan is hoping Trump moves towards him but knows that he won’t. Giving in is career suicide. Going to war could destroy the GOP. Ryan is both an ambitious career politician and a principled person of ideas. His current dilemma is a proxy for what many others in his generation of Republican leaders have faced.
The others were either completely/partially destroyed or have managed to stay on the sidelines. Ryan is still in the crosshairs. The next few weeks will define his political career. We know Donald Trump is the GOP nominee. By Cleveland we’ll know if there is still a Paul Ryan, and whether he’s prepared to take the GOP apart to save the conservative movement he grew up in.
He’d like to provide a safe banner for House and Senate members to run under. Trump won’t let him off that easily. His time for choosing is approaching.