Paul Ryan’s Losing Bet on Trump
He finally deserted The Donald, but is it too late to avoid damaging his own career?
Yesterday Paul Ryan finally decided to distance himself from the ever-more toxic Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. “Ryan informed Republican lawmakers… that he would never again campaign alongside Mr. Trump and would dedicate himself instead to defending the party’s majority in Congress,” the New York Times reported.
The decision “dealt a hammer blow” to Trump’s presidential candidacy, “dashing any remaining semblance of party unity,” the story suggested. But has the decision come too late to save Ryan? Yes, Ryan will win reelection to his House seat in Wisconsin, but what of his other career ambitions, as a House Speaker looking to be the leading voice in his party and a likely candidate for president himself in 2020 or 2024? Ryan, often seen as the GOP’s golden boy, could be indelibly tarnished by his handling of Trump.
Ryan already faced a very tough job trying to handle the Tea Party conservatives in his caucus. His predecessor John Boehner wasn’t able to do it, and finally had to resign. Though Ryan was viewed far more favorably by those representatives, that may change in the wake of his decision to ditch Trump.
“The reaction from hard-liners was swift and angry,” the Times reported. “A stream of conservative lawmakers spoke up to urge their colleagues not to give up on Mr. Trump, and chided Mr. Ryan for surrendering prematurely in the presidential race.
“One member, Representative Dana Rohrabacher of California, attacked Republicans stepping away from Mr. Trump as ‘cowards,’ three lawmakers said. Another, Representative Trent Franks of Arizona, used graphic language to describe abortion and said allowing Mrs. Clinton into the White House would end with fetuses being destroyed ‘limb from limb.’”
Wisconsin Republican congressman Reid Ribble told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel he was surprised by the reaction to Ryan as “almost all of the rank-and-file members who spoke urged their colleagues to continue to support the nominee.”
At this point, nothing short of a miracle will save Trump’s candidacy. Republicans across the country are deserting him. But the white conservatives who make up much of the GOP base still fervently support Trump and are likely to be very angry at party members like Ryan who deserted him. That clearly includes many House Republicans, who might turn on Ryan after the election.
Ryan clearly had some misgivings in the first place about taking the job of House Speaker. It’s never been a stepping stone to the presidency. The job is about the nuts and bolts of crafting legislation, not about projecting the kind of grand vision we expect of presidential candidates. But the assignment has now become far more difficult, as Ryan will face many right-wing zealots bitter about Trump’s loss, and likely to distrust the House Speaker’s every utterance.
That distrust may also extend to many GOP primary voters, should Ryan run for president in 2020 or 2024. As this year’s primary proved, much of the GOP base is very sour on Washington-based Republican incumbents. And who is more of an insider than the House Speaker? Combine this with Ryan’s rejection of Trump, and he will have a lot to overcome with red-meat Republican voters.
And should Ryan somehow survive the daunting situation he will face as House Speaker, and should he later somehow succeed at winning the GOP presidential nomination, he will face challenges from the other side that could be even tougher. Namely the question of why Ryan stood by Trump for so long.
There has never been a major party candidate, not in more than two centuries of American electoral history, who has made more controversial and repulsive statements than Donald Trump. Yes, Ryan did criticize some of Trump’s salvos, but he was silent about many others and for months has supported Trump. Even now he is trying to walk a tightrope, and has indicated he hasn’t withdrawn his endorsement of Trump. That could leave Ryan, as a presidential candidate, facing a lot of tough questions and attack ads for his support of such an ugly demagogue.
Ryan clearly had misgivings about Trump from the very beginning, and resisted endorsing him after it was clear Trump had wrapped up the Republican nomination. Ryan was probably being lobbied by his fellow Wisconsinite, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, who told the media he felt Ryan would eventually endorse Trump.
Priebus, as I’ve written, was clearly convinced Trump could expand the GOP and bring in new voters who were disengaged with the electoral process. More than likely he made that case to Ryan.
But there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of that happening. Instead, what Trump proved was that an awful lot of Republican voters were simply disengaged with their own party. They probably didn’t think the Iraq War was a good idea, didn’t want to see cuts in Social Security or Medicare or tax cuts for the wealthy, and probably wouldn’t support Ryan’s “road map” which called for wholesale cuts in entitlements and lower taxes for the upper class.
Ryan is constantly praised as the Man of Ideas though his solutions and just the basic math have never stood up to scrutiny. And this vaunted policy guy has steadfastly refused repeated invitations to actually debate his ideas issued by his Democratic opponent Ryan Solen.
There is, in short, a kind of hollowness to Ryan’s ideas, just as the party itself feels hollowed out after Trump’s takeover. Ryan might have been able to lay low and avoid much comment on Trump had he not taken over the job of House Speaker. But by doing that he was forced to embrace the most demagogic candidate in U.S. history. Explaining that away will not be easy, even for someone as deft and charismatic as Paul Ryan.