Each new day of the 2016 election cycle brings us to strange, previously unexplored political territory. Sunday night saw a major party's nominee, Donald Trump, use the presidential debate stage to threaten to incarcerate his opponent, Hillary Clinton. That spectacle followed the previous day’s rush of Trump un-endorsements from prominent Republicans, who called on him to step aside after a tape of Trump boasting about sexual assault surfaced the day before that.
Today the big news stories in the political world concern the refusal of the Republican vice presidential nominee to quit the ticket and the Republican House speaker's indicating that his party has effectively lost the presidential election.
Speaker Paul Ryan told his congressional colleagues in a big conference call on Monday that he would refuse to defend Trump and instead focus on maintaining the Republicans’ majority in the House. That’s pretty much what he’s been doing this entire election season anyway: Whenever bad Trump news has surfaced, Ryan has denounced the candidate while keeping his endorsement in place or hidden from the press. So Ryan's position right now is essentially unchanged from what it was yesterday and two months ago. The fact that he’s restating this is “news” only because the political context surrounding Trump has changed.
It was the shifting context that brought House Republicans together on this conference call, in an effort to figure out what the hell the plan would be following the collapse of Trump support from other prominent Republicans. They were craving some bold leadership. And their leader, Ryan, gave them nothing. He told them to “do what’s best for you in your district” with respect to Trump, effectively declaring an every-man-for-himself situation.
Meanwhile, Ryan made clear that his stance on Trump’s candidacy remained unchanged: Ryan officially still believes Donald Trump should be president of the United States.
Ryan and the Republicans are in a seemingly irresolvable situation here. Trump is a lethal drag on down-ticket Republicans but remains beloved by the party's base, which apparently loved his debate performance on Sunday night. Sticking with Trump means endorsing someone who is on tape bragging about how he can get away with groping women he’s attracted to. Disavowing him means angering the base of supporters that Republicans need to win House and Senate races.
It’s quite the Gordian knot, but the thing to keep in mind here is that Ryan brought this entirely on himself. At every step of their relationship, Ryan has misread Trump and miscalculated his political impact. He thought he could bring Trump to heel and force him into behaving a bit more like a Mitt Romney Republican, even though Trump had zero incentive to play nice and no loyalties or debts tying him to the party establishment.
Ryan has been burned time and time again as Trump popped off with another racist or misogynistic statement, and the speaker mortgaged his credibility by criticizing Trump without withdrawing his support for Trump's toxic candidacy.
You can chalk that up to blind party loyalty, but the real reason is that Ryan saw in Trump the vehicle for enacting his radically conservative policy agenda. He was willing to tolerate every humiliation and degradation from his party’s nominee, every insult aimed at minorities and women because he thought he spied the bright light of tax cuts and slashed entitlements at the end of that dark tunnel. With this most recent political debacle, Ryan finally seems to recognize that this isn’t going to happen.
But he’s still on board with the Trump candidacy, at least nominally. He’s trying to fool everyone into thinking that his position on Trump has changed, when really it’s just the ground that has shifted underneath his feet. Trump, meanwhile, seems intent upon heaping a few more humiliations on the speaker by practically taunting him to un-endorse.
I don’t know what Ryan will do, but at this point he’s so thoroughly compromised by Trump that it doesn’t really matter. He’s stuck by Trump through the worst and most terrible things the candidate has said and done. Un-endorsing him now, for whatever reason, is going to look craven.