June 3, 2016
Remember when Paul Ryan was dragged kicking and screaming to accept the Speakership? Remember when you thought it was just a ploy? It wasn’t. Yesterday reminded us why. It’s unlikely he assumed Donald Trump would become the Republican standard bearer last fall, but the currents that swept John Boehner away were the same that carried Trump in.
At the risk of too many metaphors in the same opening, Ryan could clearly feel a disturbance in the Force. He knew damn well that Boehner was faced with a nearly impossible situation. But he also knew nobody was better suited to attempt to patch Humpty Dumpty back together again (sorry.)
There was a chance this all could have worked out. If Marco Rubio had won the nomination, something not as far fetched as it seems now, Ryan would have served as his running mate. In addition to the actual VP nominee, a three-pack of housebroken conservatives would have carried the GOP flag into the fall.
It wouldn’t have guaranteed easy sailing. Ryan knew the party was far from united, but most Republicans were at least ok with Marco, and as Trump is currently showing, nothing like Hillary Clinton to get GOP voters to rally around the flag. As we know, that didn’t happen. I’ll forever maintain if not for a horrible glitch when Rubio was challenged by Chris Christie in the New Hampshire debate, this would have turned out differently, but we’ll never know.
It’s not easy being a bridge. If you can connect multiple sides, you’re vital and valuable. Sometimes bridges aren’t finished. Sometimes they collapse into the water or ravine. That’s what happened here. Part of what made taking the job at least somewhat palatable was his ability to relate to the various components of the GOP congressional coalition.
At the time, there wasn’t a big Trump faction. The noisy minority were more in line with Ted Cruz, someone less of an ideological leap for the Jack Kemp disciple. Ryan and Cruz aren’t exactly cut from the same cloth, but they’re at least compatible fabrics. Ryan and Trump are like combining silk and polyester (choose which is which for yourself.)
As House Budget Committee Chairman, Ryan could have avoided endorsing Trump. As Speaker, to do so would have meant going to war. None of his troops were behind him. None. Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, he of the Benghazi gaffe that made Ryan necessary is a Trump delegate to the convention. The rest of the leadership in both the House and Senate fell in line.
It’s not fair/safe to assume Ryan would have endorsed an independent conservative candidate or even remained neutral, but when it turned out National Review writer David French was the best candidate Bill Kristol could locate, any alternative was gone. The Speaker wasn’t willing to be a holdout, the only major figure in the party who wouldn’t say he was voting for Trump when the alternative is Clinton.
His six week dance with the decision looks fruitless right now. Trump made no concessions. The surrender came within a day of The Donald’s most recent salvo against the judge in the Trump University case and two days after the future nominee used reporters for target practice in a press conference. There’s no way Ryan is comfortable with a candidate who says a judge of Mexican descent can’t rule fairly in a trial.
So he issued the most tepid of endorsements. The kind a politician offers when he or she has absolutely no alternative. You can have a deep conscience and be a profile in courage or serve in the leadership. It’s hard to do both. Paul Ryan, erstwhile idol of the conservative intelligentsia, is now Speaker Ryan.
His fans will forgive him. But he’s most certainly Trump’s hostage at the moment. Here’s the question: Deep down, in the recesses of his heart, do you think Ryan is hoping The Donald wins, or loses, as long as the GOP can keep a slim majority in the House?
Much as he disagrees more with the Clinton agenda than Trump’s, I’d figure his career is mostly over if Trump wins, as is the William F. Buckley-Ronald Reagan led conservative movement. If Hillary wins, you never know if a resurgence is around the corner. Either way, not many of us would trade places with Mr. Ryan today.