With House Speaker Paul Ryan’s pathetic and inevitable capitulation to Donald Trump, the presumptive 2016 GOP presidential nominee now has the official backing of the two top Republican elected officials in the country. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, offered his pro forma backing for the Republican nominee over a month ago, immediately after Trump had bounced his last remaining rivals from the primary. Both men are, to a certain degree, forced into this position – neither could risk the political damage and controversy that would come with an outright refusal to back their own party’s presidential nominee. But they still had to come up with some sort of rationale for throwing their support behind a manifestly unqualified and dangerous presidential candidate. The answer they’ve both settled on is essentially “we can control this guy.”
Ryan’s explanation for why he gave in and endorse his nominee was that he feels he can work with Trump on passing the policy agenda he and the rest of the House GOP are going to begin unveiling this week.
Put simply, Ryan thinks he’ll be setting the agenda policy-wise, and Trump will follow his lead and sign whatever tax-cutting, entitlement-gouging legislation he can conjure.
McConnell was even more direct, telling CNBC that Trump will be brought to heel by the Republican establishment and the realities of governing:
"He's not going to change the platform of the Republican Party, the views of the Republican Party," McConnell told CNBC's "Squawk Box."
"I think we're much more likely to change him because if he is president, he's going to have to deal with sort of the right-of-center world, which is where most of us are."
It may seem like a plausible rationale, but the assumption they’re making is a dangerous one. Right now Trump seems to act on impulse and with little consideration for the broader impact of his actions, but what he says carries no weight or ultimate significance in terms of policy. Ryan and McConnell seem to think that the way to constrain him is to give him the authority to make his words and actions meaningful. He’s an unprincipled and ignorant goon who lusts for power, and the way to make him behave is to empower him?
That might be a semi-workable strategy when it comes to things like tax policy and domestic spending, given that the president can’t draft his own legislation. But there are a whole host of other policy areas in which a President Trump would have a much freer hand and no need to consult with either Ryan or McConnell before acting – immigration and foreign policy, to name two of the most significant ones. Their ability to yank the leash on Trump is, at best, limited.
Also, who are these guys to say they’re capable of restraining Donald Trump? As it stands they can barely control the people it’s their actual job to be in control of. Ryan has his position because the unruly hard-right faction of the House GOP successfully forced his predecessor out, and it’s only a matter of time before they try to drag him to the guillotine as well. McConnell’s brief reign as Senate majority leader has been marked by extended periods of inertia interrupted only by moments of chaotic disarray and politically self-defeating stunts. Ryan’s initial refusal to endorse Trump was widely seen as an attempt to pressure the nomine into moderating his behavior, but Trump made no concessions and did precisely nothing to change his conduct on the trail, and Ryan ended up endorsing him anyway. As it stands, the GOP’s track record when it comes to reining in Donald Trump is abysmal, which is why they’re in this mess to begin with.
And if you look at the between-the-lines message Ryan and McConnell are sending here, you realize that their argument is self-defeating. By insisting that they can control Trump, they’re tacitly acknowledging that there’s something inherently wrong with Trump that, left unchecked, would make him unfit to hold the office of the presidency. And yet, here they are arguing that they’ll both support his candidacy, even though he has these dangerous flaws. When McConnell talks about the party “changing” Trump, the question to ask him in response is “what if you can’t change him?”