Paul Ryan is the intellectual leader of his party. He is also Speaker of the House and, come January, will probably lead the only legislative veto point his party controls. These roles place on Ryan a series of competing demands that govern his relationship with his party’s toxic presidential nominee. Ryan wants to:
1) Fend off Trump’s ideological takeover of the party
2) Maintain the loyalty of Trump’s voters
3) Keep the support of his own House caucus
4) Minimize the chances of the kind of presidential rout that could put his House majority at risk this fall
5) Minimize the long-term brand damage Trump will leave on his party after his probable defeat
6) Avoid damage to Ryan’s own standing as the leader of conservative intellectuals
Ryan’s exquisitely tortured relationship between the two men is the product of these competing demands. His plan is to maintain his putative support for the nominee, while holding out the possibility that he might withdraw it and expressing disapproval for Trump’s most outrageous statements. If Trump wins, Ryan will have a president who will sign rather than veto the bills he sends up Pennsylvania Avenue. If, as seems more likely, Trump loses, Ryan will emphasize the disagreements and probably apologize in an extremely sincere fashion for having supported a bigot and a demagogue.
Anti-Trump conservative intellectuals are pressuring Ryan to abandon his careful equivocations, arguing his association with Trump will tarnish his image as a leader of conviction and principle. “Every piety that the speaker utters, every moral posture that he strikes, will be received with derision by anyone who remembers the months that he spent urging Americans, albeit through gritted teeth, to make Donald Trump commander in chief,” warns Ross Douthat.
But it is precisely Ryan’s reputation for sincerity that allows him to follow his present course. The essence of Paul Ryan’s career is an uncanny knack for being defined by his stated aspirations rather than his actions. He is a deficit hawk who spent the 1990s and 2000s supporting deficit-increasing measures, and pushing to make them even more profligate. He is passionate about anti-poverty policy even though his own policy priorities require massive cuts to the anti-poverty budget. He wants desperately to write a detailed health-care-reform plan but does not actually do it.
Even the most fervent Republican critics of Trump, and Ryan’s endorsement thereof, cannot quite bring themselves to impugn his morality. Michael Gerson writes, “On the current course, Ryan will be discredited as a political and moral leader.” (“The current course” can always be changed.) Jonathan Last, in a searing indictment of Ryan’s endorsement of Trump, and even while pronouncing the damage permanent, concludes, “Paul Ryan is an honorable man who made a terrible error in judgment.” However terrible his actions, they do not reflect on his core attributes. Ryan’s actions are always held separate from his character. This is why Ryan surely believes he will escape the Trump debacle with the heavenly glow that surrounds him mostly intact.