The fact that House Speaker Paul Ryan will not rescind his support for a candidate he has called “racist” clashes badly with the image of Ryan the press has helped create. When Chuck Todd interviewed Ryan on Sunday’s Meet the Press, he sounded exasperated and puzzled in equal measure. Given Ryan’s denunciations of Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric and proposals, Todd pressed him, “How are you comfortable still supporting him?”
Ryan’s rationale was practically tautological: “Imagine the Speaker of the House not supporting the duly elected nominee of our party, therefore creating a chasm in our party to split us in half, which basically helps deny us the White House and strong majorities in Congress,” he said, despite growing evidence that Trump’s candidacy will make winning the White House and holding onto strong Republican majorities next to impossible even with Ryan in his corner.
“You just made a case though of party over country,” Todd said. “No, I didn’t,” Ryan replied.
For a man as close to achieving what no conservative in the history of the movement has achieved, Ryan’s crass expediency isn’t nearly as baffling as it seems. His plan for igniting a conservative revolution has always been fairly straightforward: First, Republicans have to win control of government, and then they can ignite a conservative revolution.
The details of Ryan’s vision have always remained somewhat foggy. The conservative revolution Ryan has in mind isn’t a popular or cultural one; it is entirely legislative. And the predicate for enacting it isn’t to sell a set of ideas to the public, but to steel the spines of legislators to vote for Ryan’s ideas no matter what the public thinks.
Ryan’s revolutionary ideas themselves aren’t entirely clear, either, though that wasn’t always the case. Before he became the undisputed intellectual leader of the conservative movement in the Obama era, he laid out a series of specific and radical reforms–including Social Security and Medicare privatization–in a 2008 bill called the Roadmap for America’s Future. When it fell to him as chairman of the House budget committee to draft a governing agenda for the whole party, though, many of the details vanished.
Ryan still wants to devolve Medicare into a subsidized system of competition between insurance carriers, but only for seniors in the distant future. He still wants to hand Medicaid over to the states and slash its budgets by hundreds of billions of dollars. He still wants to cut income tax rates for the wealthy to about a third of their current level. He still wants to spend lavishly on the military. But when asked how to pay for it all, he’s exceedingly vague. He promises to cut tax expenditures, but doesn’t say how or which ones. He promises to slash the domestic discretionary budget (which disproportionately benefits the poor), but won’t say which programs, or by how much.
All of that was to be decided after Republicans won the White House. That was Ryan’s game plan when he was budget chairman; it remained his game plan as the GOP’s vice presidential nominee in 2012. And the plan seemed to be well within reach when Republicans finally consolidated control of Congress in 2015, and a raft of talented candidates were lining up to fill the last piece of the puzzle: the presidency.
Donald Trump’s GOP presidential primary victory has almost surely blown up Ryan’s plans. Trump has the Republican Party poised not just to lose the White House, but to suffer a devastating down-ballot wipeout that could conceivably end the GOP’s congressional majority. And even if he weren’t a generationally bad candidate, Trump has shown little interest in Ryan’s fiscal agenda. “This is called the Republican Party, it’s not called the Conservative Party,” he reminded the conservative movement last month.
But Ryan has been unable to accept that reality has departed irrevocably from his expectations.
And that is why he finds himself lashed to the mast of the sinking ship Trump.
Since he endorsed Trump semi-reluctantly on June 2, Ryan has faced persistent questions about whether Trump’s subsequent behavior merits revisiting that decision. In an interview with Huffington Post late last week, Ryan described a potential Trump presidency in terms that suggest he could tolerate philosophical and temperamental disagreements with Trump well past inauguration day. Ryan said Trump doesn’t have a “blank check,” but that it’s unclear “what that line is,” beyond which Ryan would feel compelled to rescind his endorsement.
Ryan’s red line is distant enough to be invisible. Just five days after his endorsement, Ryan would be calling Trump’s attacks on “Mexican judge” Gonzalo Curiel “the textbook definition of racism.” The following week, he’d be confronting the embarrassment Trump dealt Republicans in the aftermath of a significant terrorist attack. Questioned last week about Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims, Ryan said that he “would sue any president that exceeds his or her powers,” suggesting Trump can behave like an authoritarian on the campaign trail, without losing Ryan’s endorsement, so long as he doesn’t operate like one when he’s in office.
But even this suggests Ryan worries more about crossing Trump than he does about Trump crossing some arbitrary line of propriety. Tellingly, the idea of legislating with Democrats in veto-proof fashion (now or next year) to tie President Trump’s hands did not occur to him. Neither did the existence of the impeachment power. Yet unlike those enumerated powers, the power to sue is largely untested. And as former House Speaker John Boehner’s stunt health-care lawsuit against the Obama administration demonstrated, even if it ultimately succeeded, suing President Trump would take forever, and would allow his depredations to continue for years in the meantime.
It’s impossible to fully grasp Ryan’s thinking without understanding how close he feels he’s come to realizing a decades-old dream. That dream, as Grover Norquist told CPAC four years ago, culminates with the election of a figurehead. “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.”
Ryan may not imagine a president’s obligations to be quite so perfunctory, but he agrees that the main purpose of electing a Republican president is to fulfill that final, unthinking step in the legislative process. Trump’s digits are legendarily stumpy, but still large enough to cast a signature. And as long as that’s true, Ryan will set the bar for abandoning him very, very high.