House Speaker Paul Ryan wants “unity.” He’s insistent that the Republican Party and its various factions all come together and rally around its presidential nominee, Donald Trump. The responsibility for unification, Ryan insists, belongs to Trump, and he must adhere to the “process” religiously. He doesn’t want “fake unity” – it has to be real, verified unity. And only after Trump has completed this task will Paul Ryan bestow upon him the greatest gift he can offer: the approval of Paul Ryan.
That, at least, is the story Ryan is shoveling as he stalls for time and makes a show of putting up resistance to the candidate the strong plurality of his party’s electorate chose to be its nominee. And while Ryan continually wrings his hands and publicly agonizes over unity, the party is lining up behind Trump. He’s currently enjoying the support of former rivals, former critics, leaders in Congress, billionaire donors, and, more importantly, the Republican electorate, which very much wants its elected leaders to move past their differences with Trump and get on board. Ryan wanted unity, and Trump is giving it to him.
Ryan’s decision to withhold his endorsement was always a bluff, and a rather transparent one at that, and so Trump called it. Ryan never had any leverage over Trump because ultimately Trump doesn’t give a damn about the GOP or its political future. The party’s consolidation of support behind Trump has occurred without any changes of behavior on the part of the candidate. At this point, Ryan’s ongoing refusal to formally back Trump makes him the most potent force for disunity within the GOP.
And so Ryan finds himself in a tough bind. As Bloomberg Politics reported Tuesday, Ryan is apparently ready for his manufactured stand-off with Trump to be over. That makes sense, given that the rest of the party has already learned to accept Trump and he now finds himself a bit exposed and isolated. The easiest way for this silly dispute to end, of course, is for Ryan to just go ahead and endorse Trump. But he can’t really do that, given that the Donald Trump he pointedly refused to endorse earlier this much is very much the same Donald Trump that the rest of his party has lined up behind. Just this week, Trump floated an insane conspiracy theory implicating Hillary Clinton in the death of a former associate. How does Ryan plausibly make the argument that Trump has satisfactorily met his conditions when Trump hasn’t changed one iota?
But Ryan also can’t maintain this adversarial posture forever. The voters and Ryan’s colleagues want to move beyond the discord and focus on defeating Clinton. The longer he continues on, the more antipathy he draws from the rank-and-file. And how can he keep on insisting upon “unity” while he remains one of the few stubborn holdouts refusing to unite?
For the moment, Ryan and his office are denying rumors (spread by Trump people) that an endorsement is imminent, and they’re insistent that Ryan himself has no regrets about picking a losing fight with Trump. But he’ll have to figure out some way to get behind Trump eventually. The only question at this point is how Ryan tries to save face.