Good for Paul Ryan.
While other Republicans are embracing Donald Trump’s hostile takeover of their party or trying to find some morally dubious neutral ground on which to cower, Ryan is taking a different course. Asked by CNN Thursday whether he will endorse or support Trump, Ryan declined.
“I’m just not ready to do that at this point. I’m not there right now,” the speaker said.
That’s quite a statement, pitting the Republican Party’s most powerful elected official against its presidential nominee. And while those words imply a possibility that Ryan might change his mind at some point, the conditions that he announced make it unlikely.
“I hope to, and I want to (back Trump),” Ryan said. “But I think what is required is to unify this party. And I think the bulk of the burden on unifying the party will have to come from our presumptive nominee.” Ryan then went on to explain his price for that unity. He wants Trump to alter the tone, tenor and content of his campaign. He wants Trump to run “a principled campaign that Republicans can be proud about,” a campaign worthy of “the party of Lincoln, Reagan and Jack Kemp” that honors traditional conservative principles.
“It’s time to set aside bullying, to set aside belittlement and appeal to higher aspirations, appeal to what is good in us,” Ryan said.
Put another way, I guess, Ryan wants Trump to change into John Kasich. That’s not going to happen.
Over the course of this campaign, over the course of his entire life, Trump has made it crystal clear to all of us who and what he is. He has made it clear that he sees himself as the great man, and the great man does not bend to the demands of the party that he just conquered. Instead, the party and its members must now bend to him.
Ryan, for his part, recognizes the profound danger of the moment. He knows that a party defines itself by the nominee it chooses. He has watched how Trump has quietly insinuated himself into the GOP, welcomed at each stage by people who believed they were smarter than Trump, that they could leverage Trump’s money, popularity or celebrity without understanding the Faustian price that Trump would exact in return.
Think back to 2012, to the day when Mitt Romney met with Trump in Las Vegas to seek his endorsement. I never understood what Romney had hoped to get out of that meeting with the birther-obsessed Trump, but Trump’s gain was obvious. He won validation. He won stature as a legitimate party power, someone to whom the party nominee must come for a blessing. Romney had let Trump inside the party gates, and four years later, when Romney finally blasted Trump as a pathologically dishonest bully and a fraud, it came too late.
Think back to last September, when Ted Cruz invited “my friend Donald” to appear beside him at a Washington rally against the Iran nuclear deal. “I like Donald Trump,” Cruz said at the time. “And I’m glad that he’s energized and excited a lot of people. I also think Donald Trump has been tremendously beneficial to our campaign.”
“Donald has an incredible ability to attract attention, 24 million Americans watched that first debate. Millions of eyeballs watched that debate. Our national support doubled,” Cruz said.
Cruz thought he was outsmarting Trump, that he could get what he wanted from the political neophyte at little risk to himself. “You know, I am a big fan of Sun Tzu’s dictum, that every battle is won before it is fought,” the Texas senator bragged to a reporter that day. “It’s won by choosing the terrain on which the battle would be fought, framing the argument.”
Cruz thought he had seized the favorable ground as the Washington outsider. He did not realize that Trump was stealing it out from under him even as he spoke, along with the votes that he had worked so hard to cultivate. He was right: The battle had been won before it even began.
Ryan has watched all this, and he sees it happening again on a much larger scale. Those Republicans who believe that they can “support the nominee” without surrendering to the entire Trump package are once again fooling themselves. He understands that Trump takes much more in any deal than he gives, and he fears, quite correctly, that Trump is in the process of transforming the GOP from a party that gives voice to conservative concerns into a cult of personality that is focused on the aggrandizement of Trump.
Ryan further understands that those who choose collaboration in hopes of avoiding conflict or who embrace Trump in hopes of professional advancement are making the same sort of miscalculation that has given Trump control of the party. Unlike them, he isn’t willing to surrender the party’s future to Trump in the infinitesimal hope that this false unity could somehow produce a Republican victory in the fall.
In fact, let me take this one step further. Ryan probably recognizes that the worst thing that could happen to the Republicans isn’t a Goldwater-scale defeat in the fall, along with the loss of the House and Senate. That would be a disaster, but the party could recover from it.
The worst possible outcome for the Republicans long-term would be if Trump were to somehow pull off a victory. A Trump victory would complete the party’s transformation into a cult of personality. It would kill it as a champion of traditional conservatism, and it would turn Trump into the role model for future Republican politicians just as Ronald Reagan served as a role model for subsequent generations. It might still be known as the Republican Party, but it would never again have any claim to being “the party of Lincoln, Reagan and Jack Kemp.”
Ryan can’t save the entire party from the Trump taint; it’s much too far along for that. He is creating a “GOP-in-exile” in hopes of preserving enough of it to serve as the foundation upon which to rebuild.