Ryan was himself at last night’s CNN town hall, which is to say that he was personable and folksy (“Go Packers!”) and used the word “percent” a lot. There are people who cover politics who seem to labor under the impression that a politician can be wonkish or charming but never both, and Paul Ryan is both, albeit to a very moderate degree, which can make him seem very impressive indeed. Ryan had one goal at the town hall, which is the same goal he will have every day for the next four years: to square the circle between whatever Donald Trump has said in the last two weeks with his own myopic, libertarian ideas about government spending.
Much of the town hall revolved unsurprisingly around Trump’s incoming administration. It started with a question that set the tone for the entire evening: A former Reagan campaign worker asked about the future of Obamacare, which he credited for “saving his life.”
Ryan pivoted to the Republican Party’s favorite talking point: that premiums are rising exponentially in a few states, like Arizona. Ryan even brought a prop—an index card with the figures written on them—that he pulled out of his jacket to great effect. And then he told the man that the law that saved his life was “destroying the rest of the health care system for everybody else” (it’s not) and the “worst is yet to come” from Obamacare (maybe, but Ryan’s party would be at fault for this as much, if not more, than the law itself). Ryan promised the man that a replacement would happen at the same time as repeal, and that the new law will simultaneously fix Obamacare and America’s larger health insurance market without affecting people like him. There is no evidence that this will happen, but Ryan plowed through it nevertheless.
The next awkward moment resulted from a question asked by an undocumented immigrant who came to America as a child, is protected from deportation by DACA, and now has a family of her own. She asked Ryan what he would do about families like hers, who are justifiably terrified because of everything Trump has said over the past 18 months. (Her question is at the 10:30 mark in the video above.)
This time Ryan stuttered and stumbled a bit, at one point nervously giggling while saying that a “deportation force” is not being assembled, despite what Donald Trump has said. Once again, Ryan tried to make the case that he and the incoming president were on the same page—that they only wanted to push policies that would affect undocumented immigrants who had committed crimes, not law-abiding ones like the woman who asked the question. But once again, Ryan’s tap dance just didn’t work.
This is as easy as it’s going to get for Ryan. Trump isn’t president yet, so Ryan can go ahead and say that he and the president-elect are on the same page because they haven’t had to actually work together yet. But at last night’s town hall you saw considerable dissonance between the concerns of citizens, Ryan’s own political philosophy, and Trump’s words and proposed policies.