Paul Ryan plays the waiting game: How long will he dance around his inevitable Trump endorsement?

The longer Ryan drags this out, the more the Republican Party will appear in complete disarray

Published June 1, 2016 11:59AM (EDT)

Paul Ryan (AP/Andrew Harnik)
Paul Ryan (AP/Andrew Harnik)

Paul Ryan has begun to resemble an old-fashioned, high-society debutante. One cannot simply ask for his hand in marriage – he must be elaborately courted first. He needed his fellow Republicans to embarrass themselves begging him to take the job of Speaker of the House last fall after John Boehner’s surprise retirement. Now he has spent four weeks dancing around an endorsement of Donald Trump like he’s wearing a hoop skirt and a bored expression while a never-ending passel of soldiers in Confederate uniforms keeps crossing the ballroom to ask him to dance.

At a time when the #NeverTrump movement has devolved into a handful of old-line conservatives plus whatever fever dreams are keeping Bill Kristol’s brain addled, Ryan is still quietly but conspicuously refusing to endorse his party’s presidential nominee. A house speaker not endorsing his party’s candidate is unprecedented in recent history, especially for the GOP, which had turned party discipline in the legislature into a high art.

Even Ryan’s opposite number in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, finally caved in this weekend and told his party to get in line already. McConnell may have looked at polls indicating he’s going to lose his Senate majority one way or the other and calculated that getting his caucus on board the Trump train will excite the base and limit the losses. Which doesn’t make him any less principled a conservative, because he’s Mitch McConnell and that ship has sailed.

Ryan is not in quite so dire a situation with the House. Though there is polling evidence that Trump’s historically high unfavorable ratings might lead to more House seats flipping to the Democrats than would have been the case if the GOP had nominated, say, Jeb Bush, the party is still likely to keep its majority in the chamber. So he can afford to be a little choosy while giving his members in more purple districts cover for not supporting Trump.

This won’t stop some Republicans from getting nervous because Ryan refuses to get in line, especially if the perception lingers that the dragging on of the Democratic primary is giving the GOP a great opportunity to unite ahead of the general.

But Ryan and his surrogates keep putting off his reconciliation with Trump. The latest to go to bat for the House Speaker is Pete Wehner, former adviser to George W. Bush, current fellow at the conservative think tank Ethics and Public Policy Center, and one of the last #NeverTrump holdouts. Wehner recently gave an interview to the Washington Post in which he tried to signal the Trump camp that Ryan is not just some cheap ideological strumpet – he cares about conservative ideals.

Paul Ryan in many ways is the antithesis of Donald Trump; he’s everything that Donald Trump is not. He’s a decent human being. He is a conservative. He is steeped in public policy. He cares about ideas. He’s a person who conducts himself with civility and grace in public life. He doesn’t put down his opponents.

He’s aspirational in his message and philosophy. He’s inclusive. He’s an admirable human being, and Donald Trump is not.

Ouch. Trump, a man whose skin is so thin that if you squint you can see what he ate for lunch, is not going to like that dig.

You mentioned that there are reasons that he might, in the end, reconcile with Trump. What are those reasons?

My guess is what Ryan is hoping for is that he can tether Donald Trump to a conservative dock precisely because Trump is philosophically adrift at sea and he doesn’t have any knowledge of philosophy or policies or ideas. Ryan might be able, by virtue of his institutional role as speaker of the House, be able to make Trump more conservative than he would otherwise be and mitigate some of his worst tendencies and qualities.

The entire interview goes on in this vein, with Wehner trying to obliquely shame Trump into embracing the conservatism of Paul Ryan. It is a worthless exercise because Trump never met a principle he wouldn’t discard in two minutes or more likely forget he ever embraced in the first place. He won the primary not because he ran as a principled conservative, but because he’s a mouthy racist jackass who could memorize and spit out every nutty conspiracy theory to ever appear on Breitbart or the Daily Caller. This has Republican voters saying, “Finally! A candidate who really gets us.”

In short, Trump won by spouting the very same lies that GOP politicians have been happy to have the voters believe without ever having to say them aloud themselves. There was never any principle here for Ryan and the Republicans beyond keeping the masses riled up and continuing to vote for them. To pretend otherwise now reeks of desperation, even if it is hidden behind a veil of “conservative beliefs.”

Because Ryan can’t admit this, or admit that Trump’s nomination has caused some Republicans to give up hope of winning the presidency and concentrate on limiting the down-ballot losses in Congress and the states, we’ll probably see more of this dance at least until the convention next month. But Ryan can’t drag it out until the election. That would only reinforce the perception of the GOP as a party in disarray, and one that has no business being near the levers of government. Ryan would be an even weaker Speaker in the next Congress than he is now, and that is the last thing he wants to happen.

By Gary Legum

MORE FROM Gary Legum

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