Speaker Ryan caves

by Michael Sean Winters

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Speaker of the House Paul Ryan caved yesterday and endorsed Donald Trump for the presidency of the United States. Ryan did so in as quiet a manner as possible, a column in his hometown newspaper in Wisconsin. Still, it did not take long for Ryan to decide whether or not to be the conscience of the party of Lincoln or not. I would not call Ryan a cheap date, but his decision betrays him as a mere pol, not a statesman, and ultimately as someone who lacked the backbone and the imagination to stand against the Trump tsunami.

Speaker Ryan likes to fashion himself a "policy guy" even a wonk. And, in announcing his support for Trump, Ryan pointed to conversations he has had with the nominee about the GOP's agenda. "Through these conversations," Ryan wrote, "I feel confident he would help us turn the ideas in this agenda into laws to help improve people's lives. That's why I'll be voting for him this fall." It is interesting that Ryan expects Trump to support his agenda and not the other way round. And, seeing as Trump has campaigned and won on policy proposals to ban Muslims and build a wall along the southern border, are we to understand that Ryan and the House GOP now back those proposals too?

I have always doubted the degree to which Ryan's essence was about policy. Someone who once instructed his interns to read Ayn Rand strikes me as more of an ideologue than a policy guy. After all, Rand's approach to public policy is univocal: shrink it or kill it. But, what ideas could he possibly share with Trump? That the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom is important? The Constitution's requirement that the judiciary be independent? (Trump greeted Ryan's backing by repeating his angry denunciation of the "Mexican" judge handling the Trump University case.) Does the Speaker now support expanding the number of countries with nuclear arsenals and does he think Vladimir Putin gets high marks for leadership? Which ideas do he and his party's nominee share? Hillary Clinton had it right yesterday when she said, "Donald Trump's ideas aren't just different -- they're dangerously incoherent. They're not even really ideas -- just a series of bizarre rants, personal feuds and outright lies."

Whether you think Ryan is a policy guy or more of an ideologue, we can all agree he is rightly tagged, and self-identified, as a movement conservative. His policies and his ideas flow from conservative values. The adjectives liberal and conservative can as often becloud as enlighten, but at this point in time, an American conservative values faith and family, the free market and a robust foreign policy. Trump has said that he has never asked God for forgiveness and referred to Communion as "the little cracker." His is on wife Number 3 and, more disturbingly, has had nasty things to say about the ex-wives and coarse things to say about women in general. And a central policy objective of his campaign is to separate husbands from wives and children from parents in pursuit of a mass deportation of undocumented immigrants. So much for faith and family.

Trump claims to exemplify the possibilities of the free market but, of course, successful real estate and development tycoons tend to embody the "crony capitalism" that Ryan and other free market purists denounce. Why else would Trump have lavished campaign contributions on politicians he now claims are incompetent? Trump's promise of high tariffs in trade wars surely does not comport with Ryan's free trade commitments. And, as for foreign policy, again, see Clinton's speech yesterday. Conservatives may desire a more robust foreign policy than that offered by President Obama, but they cannot possibly think the erratic, personality-driven rants on foreign policy that Trump has uttered amount to an adequate basis for robust anything.

The biggest problem with supporting Trump, however, is the most obvious: As Jack Shafer pointed out yesterday in a column to which I linked, Trump behaves like a two-​year-old. Speaker Ryan's endorsement makes it seem as if you and I would be entering the voting booth in November and would get to choose between competing policy platforms. That is not the case. We will be choosing between two persons, neither of whom is very likeable, both of whom have more baggage than the waiting room at Grand Central, but only one of whom behaves like an adult, an adult who sometimes forgets that the rules apply to her and her husband to be sure, but an adult nonetheless. Can Ryan be sure that, if elected, Trump will follow through on whatever they have discussed concerning policy? Is there any Republican establishment left to serve as a counter-weight to whatever pops into the Donald's head?

The most delicious question is this: Will it be easier or more difficult to rebuild the Republican Party after Trump's reign ends having endorsed him or having stood aside? We do not know the answer to that question yet -- indeed we do not know if Trump's reign will end in November for last for four or eight years! But, we do know this: Had Ryan decided to stand aside, his commitment to principle would have been obvious. Foolhardy perhaps, but obvious. Having chosen to go all-in with Trump betrays a combination of political calculation and hope -- I suspect misplaced hope at that. And if, as still seems likely, Trump crashes and burns in the course of the campaign, how many people will he drag down with him? And did Paul Ryan just sign up for the drag-down? I am sure Ryan is still a decent and intelligent guy. But, I also think he just made the worst decision of his political and moral career.

[Michael Sean Winters is a Visiting Fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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