It's Donald Trump's party now -- and Paul Ryan did this to himself

GOP rigged the House so they could enact Paul Ryan's agenda with any Republican president. Well, maybe except one

Published June 8, 2016 5:18PM (EDT)

Paul Ryan, Donald Trump   (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Reuters/Mark Kauzlarich/Photo montage by Salon)
Paul Ryan, Donald Trump (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Reuters/Mark Kauzlarich/Photo montage by Salon)

"I'm with racist," screamed the front page of Wednesday's Daily News, with a photo montage of a weary Paul Ryan pointing at an unapologetically smirking Donald Trump.

It was hardly the image the House speaker hoped to project; after all, he'd ventured Tuesday to one of Washington, D.C.'s poorest neighborhoods, Anacostia, to push the House Republican agenda and its anti-poverty measures. He'd hoped to make the case for why the GOP plan would bring jobs and uplift to all -- not to be explaining why his party's presumptive nominee's attacks on a Mexican judge were the textbook definition of racism, but that he would continue to support him anyway.

"Paul Ryan will be mocked about his Trump comment for a long time," observed Slate. Maybe that mockery will be the cold water the House speaker needs to face reality. Ryan clings to the idea that the GOP is his party. It is actually Donald Trump's. And the 2011 gerrymander that put Ryan in power helped make it so.

In early May, when Trump's ascendance was certain but Ryan nevertheless told CNN that he wasn't ready to endorse the businessman, the speaker suggested he wanted Trump to pledge allegiance to the House Republican agenda. “I think conservatives want to know: Does he share our values and our principles on limited government, the proper role of the executive, adherence to the Constitution?” he told them. “There’s a lot of questions that conservatives, I think, are going to want answers to.”

Perhaps fewer than he thought. Ryan was still working under -- or laboring to maintain -- the old assumption that his agenda was the party's, and that a Republican president would be a rubber-stamp for the real power in the Speaker's office. Under a GOP administration, Ryan intended to be president from Capitol Hill.

Grover Norquist presented this strategy for all to see in a 2012 speech at the CPAC conference:

"All we have to do is replace Obama. ...  We are not auditioning for fearless leader. We don't need a president to tell us in what direction to go. We know what direction to go. We want the Ryan budget. ... We just need a president to sign this stuff. We don't need someone to think it up or design it. The leadership now for the modern conservative movement for the next 20 years will be coming out of the House and the Senate. [...] Pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen to become president of the United States. "

But Trump is not Paul Ryan's pen. Ryan's agenda is not the party's. On trade and immigration, vast majorities of the GOP electorate stand with Trump and not Ryan. A Pew poll last month found Ryan's approval rating under water even within the GOP: 40 percent of Republicans approved of his job as speaker, and 44 percent disapproved. As the New York Times analyzed last week:

Some Republican candidates who ran for president this year, like Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz and the former Florida governor Jeb Bush, may have differed with Mr. Ryan on the margins on policy, but they hewed to the same core beliefs. Mr. Trump didn’t simply beat those candidates, he destroyed them, often in a highly personal way. The traditional Republican agenda is not selling this year.

This is the Republican Party -- and Paul Ryan's -- own fault. The roots of the GOP's dilemma can be found in the 2011 gerrymander that gave the GOP a firewall in Congress for the rest of this decade, at minimum, but also created dozens of new, extreme districts where the only competition exists in the Republican primary. The brilliant Redistricting Majority Project -- REDMAP for short -- that the GOP executed in 2010 and 2011, involved flipping state legislative chambers, dominating the 2011 redistricting process, and locking in Republican control. All the GOP would then have to do to enact their agenda -- despite the demographic challenges facing the party -- is capture the White House in 2012, 2016 or 2020 and give their new president a pen.

It didn't work that way. Those safe districts tipped the balance of power inside the party. By all but eliminating competitive general elections, redistricting made the Republican Party too conservative even for what had been its most conservative, revolutionary edge. By creating safer and safer seats, held by more and more conservative members, Republican strategists generated deeper and deeper frustration among the conservative base when congressional majorities did not lead to exactly the policies they hoped to see. By drawing districts that were whiter than they had been the decade before, Republicans empowered their angriest base and stopped talking to anyone else. There was no incentive to govern, let alone try and make a deal with the other side.

As Matt Taibbi explained:

But they were also undone by a surge of voter anger that was in significant part their own fault. In recent years, the Koch brothers/Tea Party wing of the GOP had purged all moderates from the party, to the point where anyone who was on record supporting the continued existence of any federal agency, said Mexicans were people, or spoke even theoretically about the utility of taxes was drummed from the candidate rolls.

Their expected endgame here was probably supposed to be the ascension of some far-right, anti-tax, anti-government radical like Scott Walker, or even Cruz.

Instead, this carefully cultivated "throw the bums out" vibe was gluttonously appropriated by Trump, who turned the anger against the entire Republican Party before surging to victory on a strongman's platform of giant walls, mass deportation and extravagant job promises that made the moon landing or the Bernie Sanders agenda of free college look incrementalist in comparison.

The GOP majority is safe in the House. Even if Trump is routed in the fall, it's folly to believe that Republicans who find him too distasteful to support will also back Democratic congressional candidates down-ballot, and hand the hated Hillary Clinton a free hand. This certainly won't happen in enough of these absurdly tilted districts so as to give Democrats control.

That means Paul Ryan will be speaker in January. His agenda, however, may well be finished until 2020. He'll have to be elected president to be the president.

By David Daley

David Daley, former editor-in-chief of Salon, is the author of the national bestseller “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”

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