The outcome was probably inevitable. After their much-hyped summit meeting, it was simply a matter of playing out their elaborate kabuki dance before Paul Ryan threw his support behind his party’s presumptive nominee, Donald Trump.
But yesterday’s announcement was nonetheless a surprise and a disappointment for two reasons:
The timing and the terms.
Ryan’s announcement was notably tepid and came with the caveat that the speaker reserved the right to distance himself from Trump when they disagree. But it was an endorsement, nonetheless, and it was a huge get for a candidate who badly needs to unite his party and normalize his decidedly abnormal candidacy.
But why now? Ryan’s announcement that he would vote for Trump comes after Trump’s Month of Behaving Badly: his lashing out against New Mexico Governor Susanna Martinez and other Republicans, including Mitt Romney; his personal, racialized attack on the federal judge presiding over his Trump U fraud case; his petulant attack on reporters for trying to get answers about his belated contributions to veterans’ groups; and his blunt acknowledgment that he had no intention of changing his approach either as a candidate or as a president.
These were the sorts of things that Ryan cited four weeks ago when he said wasn’t yet ready to endorse Trump. So what changed? In the last four weeks, Trump had an opportunity to show a more mature, more serious side. And he refused, doubling down on the persona that he displayed during the primaries – heavy on bluster and bullying, light on humility and policy. And yet, Ryan endorsed him anyway.
In the end, there was no deal, merely a negotiated surrender. So what were the terms?
Ryan’s statement merely says he is “confident” Trump will support his agenda, but confident is not a word that ought to apply to anything the Donald is saying these days. With Trump everything is provisional, everything is subject to change.
But perhaps Ryan had no choice. His job as speaker is to protect his majority and advance his policy objectives in an increasingly hostile political environment.
That policy agenda was clearly foremost in Ryan’s mind yesterday. His statement of support was notable for the fact that it did not endorse Trump’s agenda or his policies; it was based on Ryan’s hope that Trump would embrace Ryan’s agenda. The distinction is important.
House Republicans will begin laying out their own agenda today and it is likely to be broad and specific:
This month, we’ll show the country what a better tax code looks like. We’ll outline a plan not just for repealing Obamacare but replacing it with a better system, more focused on patients, choices and lower costs. We’ll offer a plan to restore the Constitution and the separation of powers that decades of executive overreach have eroded. We’ll present the ideal national security and foreign policy to keep Americans safe. We’ll show how we can reform rules and regulations so they’re spurring the economy and creating jobs, not destroying them. And we’ll offer a better way to help lift people out of poverty and into lives of self-determination.
Ryan expressed confidence that a President Trump would sign such legislation. But unstated was the fear that Candidate Trump might torpedo the House agenda or disavow it. That would have been a devastating blow to House Republicans and a risk that Ryan was unable to take.
So he took the leap, but did so without a firm commitment to anything. His wager is simple: there is no way in hell that President Hillary would sign any of his bills. There is a chance that a President Trump might.
But, let’s be honest here: the price is high: Ryan is not merely the speaker, but also the intellectual leader of the conservative movement in the GOP. He is a fundamentally decent man, committed to small government and conservative free market-based reforms. His vision is aspirational and inclusive.
Donald Trump is none of those things. And yet Ryan now finds himself on the Trump Train. It is unlikely to be a smooth ride.
Yesterday’s capitulation to Trump without commitments and in the face of evidence that Trump has no intention of running either as an adult or a conservative, leaves Ryan and other GOPers with no leverage over the Orange Duce, nothing that might tempt or threaten him into a semblance of seriousness.
Instead, in its movement through the stages of grief, the GOP (and Ryan) seem to have moved from Denial, to Anger, to Bargaining. But it is somewhere between naïve and delusional to think that they can control or even moderate Donald Trump. He has made it clear that his notion of party loyalty runs in only one direction and that his campaign is about personality (his), not ideas (theirs).
Trump, who has made a mockery out of policy and has explicitly and repeatedly rejected the philosophy of limited government throughout his campaign, won't pursue anything resembling a serious reform agenda even if elected.In the more likely event that Trump is defeated in November, having endorsed him, Ryan will lose credibility to rebuild the GOP. Instead, he will forever be tainted by his support for Trump.
We can only hope he’s wrong about that. But hope is a slender reed these days.