Tuesday was the big debut of Paul Ryan’s new policy agenda, and it was supposed to be an opportunity for the House Speaker to talk about policy and the direction he envisions for the GOP. But, as is the case with most things in Republican politics these days, his party was spoiled by Donald Trump. The Republicans’ presumptive nominee has spent the past week busily burying himself under a large and flaming pile of racism, and so reporters were naturally curious what Ryan (who belatedly endorsed Trump a week ago) thought about Trump’s attacks on federal judge Gonzalo Curiel.
Ryan wasn’t sparing in his condemnation of Trump’s assault on Curiel and his Mexican heritage. “Claiming a person can’t do their job because of their race is sort of like the textbook definition of a racist comment,” he said. “I think that should be absolutely disavowed. It’s absolutely unacceptable.”
And then immediately after this scorching rebuke of Trump’s rhetoric, Ryan explained why he still accepts the man who unapologetically says these unacceptably racist things:
RYAN: But do I believe that Hillary Clinton is the answer? No I do not. Do I believe that Hillary Clinton is going to be the answer to solving these problems? No I do not. I believe that we have more common ground on the policy issues of the day, and we have more likelihood of getting our policies enacted with him than we do with her. But I do absolutely disavow those comments. I think they’re wrong. I don’t think they’re right-headed. And the thinking behind it is something I don’t even personally relate to. But at the end of the day, this is about ideas. This is about moving our agenda forward, and that’s why we’re moving the way we’re moving.
This is about as pure an example of the “At Least He’s Not Hillary” phenomenon that you’re going to find. Confronted with a real and tangible example of Donald Trump’s reprehensible behavior, Ryan made no effort to downplay or excuse the terribleness of Trump’s rhetoric and thinking, but even after acknowledging that and firmly declaring how “unacceptable” it is for a presidential candidate, Ryan made the case that he’s still a better choice than Hillary Clinton. Why? Because Ryan really wants to cut taxes and slash domestic spending, and he’s willing to swallow a certain amount of racism from his presidential nominee to “move our agenda forward.”
It’s an untenable situation for Ryan and every other Republican who has yoked themselves to Trump out of partisan obligation. Backing Trump solely because he’s not Hillary Clinton is a cop-out. It’s a way to stave off partisan discord by trying to have it both ways: they’re “supporting” Trump, but at the same time they’re not making an affirmative case for him. It was also a strategy for tip-toeing around Trump’s racism and outrageous behavior, which are longstanding matters of public record (and were arguably an asset in the Republican primary). But the underlying tension in this position is not just going to disappear, mainly because Trump himself won’t allow it.
That’s why you’re seeing so many Republican politicians giving hopeful and gently chiding statements about Trump making a few “mistakes” and “growing” as a candidate – they desperately want that to be true because the only way to make this problem go away is for Trump to turn into someone who is not Donald Trump. That clearly is not going to happen. Even after all the condemnations from within his own party, Trump is pointedly refusing to back down and is instead arguing that “my comments have been misconstrued.” He did insist that he was not going to comment any further on the matter, which is probably welcome news for his Republican backers (assuming he holds to that commitment). “Hopefully this is an inflection point,” Ryan told John Dickerson. “Hopefully as lesson will be learned here and we can move forward with a better campaign.”
But there’s no way to unring that bell, and there’s a very high likelihood that Trump will ring it again in the future. So the only option available to Republicans like Paul Ryan, who endorsed Trump knowing full well what they were getting into, is to keep finding ways to tactfully explain that their desire to cut rich people’s taxes outweighs their disgust with a presidential nominee who says things that are flagrantly racist. That’s already a morally questionable position, and if Trump continues along his current path it will become impossible to maintain.