Yesterday, cable news held a collective crystal ball reading the entire day to let us know what was going to happen at today's big meeting between Paul Ryan and Donald Trump. Experts from across the capital gathered together to speak in hushed tones about "what needs to happen" to bring "unity" to the Republican Party, the assumption being that if Trump can be anointed by Paul Ryan as an acceptable leader, the Capitol Hill rank and file will fall in line. At least that seems to be the hope.
However, as usual, many members of the press seem unaware that far from being the conservative hero they assume Ryan to be, he's actually quite unpopular with the base of the party. The latest PPP poll bears the bad news for Ryan:
Republican voters have soured on Paul Ryan nationally. Overall only 30% of voters approve of the job Ryan is doing as Speaker of the House, to 48% who disapprove. What's most noteworthy though is that Ryan is under water even among Republicans, with 40% of them approving of the job he's doing to 44% who are unhappy. In November we found that 69% of Republicans supported Ryan becoming Speaker to only 14% were against it, but that honeymoon has worn off very quickly. The idea of Ryan being a white knight who could have unified the GOP and saved it from Trump is a beltway fantasy out of line with how actual Republican voters across the country feel about him at this point. [Emphasis added]
Some of us have been pointing this out for quite some time but the political establishment just can't seem to wrap their minds around the fact that such a dreamy young fellow could possibly be unpopular. The fact is that the passage of the omnibus spending bill last winter was seen as a slap in the face to hard core Republicans who continue to believe that if they have a majority in Congress they are empowered to unilaterally enact their agenda -- or at least have a responsibility to hold their breath until they turn blue or blow up the government until they get their way. Quite simply, they have been led to believe that a congressional majority means the other side is completely neutered.
For that belief, you can thank people like anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist, who famously said after the GOP's 2004 victory:
"Once the minority of House and Senate are comfortable in their minority status, they will have no problem socializing with the Republicans. Any farmer will tell you that certain animals run around and are unpleasant, but when they've been fixed, then they are happy and sedate. They are contented and cheerful. They don't go around peeing on the furniture and such."
He, at least, had a president of his own party. Since 2010, Republicans assumed they had a mandate merely by winning majorities in the Congress in off-year elections. Their leaders have failed to tutor them properly in the way our government works, so they assume that any victory means the Democrats have an obligation to pass their agenda. (Needless to say, this rule does not apply to wins by the other side, which are assumed to achieved through illegitimate means.)
Trump has made it clear that he too believes that his narrow primary victory is a mandate and he plans to change nothing:
"You win the pennant and now you’re in the World Series — you gonna change?" Mr. Trump said. "People like the way I’m doing."
He argued that he stood a better chance of inspiring voters in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania if he was his authentic self, rather than shifting from populist outsider to political insider to please a relative handful of Republican elites who are part of the establishment he has railed against for months. He said his huge rallies, where outbursts of violence and racist taunts have vexed many Republican leaders, and his attacks against adversaries on Twitter and in television interviews would continue because he believes Americans admire his aggressive, take-charge style.
"I think I have a mandate from the people,"
How are they going to argue with that? But it does raise flags for officials like Lindsey Graham, who are repulsed by Trump the demagogue and recognize the long-term damage he will inflict on the party. He's not alone.
The word on the cable news shows yesterday was that Ryan would be content if he could just get Trump to sign on to a set of "conservative principles" that everyone can agree upon. The problem is that Trump will say something on a given day and then say the opposite the next. And that assumes he doesn't believe that everything he says, no matter what it is, comes from "conservative principles" simply by virtue of him being a self-described conservative. He has shown little familiarity with conservative movement doctrine or even the kind of rhetoric that might make some movement types believe that he's one of them, so if his simple declaration isn't sufficient they may be out of luck.
Conservative commentator Michael Medved suggested yesterday on CNN that the healing could begin if Trump would just signal his conservative intentions by signing on to deficit reduction. Apparently he doesn't know that Trump has already done that, he just has a different solution than most, saying that he'll bring so much growth that the $20 trillion national debt itself will be retired in 8 years. Recently he said that he planned to "renegotiate" the national debt, sparking alarms across the entire financial system. Let's just say that Trump has expressed confidence that one way or another he will eliminate not only the budget deficit but the national debt itself and everyone else should be confident too because he's going to make America great again.
This is just one of many very serious issues about which it's clear he's completely clueless. Perhaps the most frightening of these have been his ignorant commentary on national security. Singing the praises of torture and summary execution is bad enough, but when a presidential candidate says he wants to be "unpredictable" about nuclear war, refusing to rule out using it against our allies, people tend to get a little bit nervous. Even Republicans.
So even if he were to convince the conservatives that he's really truly one of them deep in his heart, Ryan would have to find a way to convince other Republicans that Trump actually understands anything but building a wall, deporting immigrants, starting a global trade war, banning Muslims, treating women like dirt, massively expanding the military, giving the police more power and torturing people. Those are, after all, the only issues on which he's been consistent. And he's been consistent on them for more than 30 years, so it's fair to say that this is his core agenda. Everything else is ... negotiable.
Paul Ryan is stuck in a job he never really wanted and is trying to keep his party from imploding into such small bits that it cannot be put back together again. If he were the talented political guru everyone in Washington desperately wants him to be, he might get that done. But the best they can really hope for from today's summit meeting is that his blessing might appease some members of the political establishment and maybe a few congressmen in safe districts. Trump's wrecking ball of a campaign has already caused substantial damage and it's still swinging wildly. Today may be the day we find out if Paul Ryan is light enough on his feet to avoid being hit by it.