House Speaker Paul Ryan is earning praise today for having the moral courage to call out Donald Trump’s proposal to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the United States. Here’s what Ryan told reporters:
“When we voted to pause the refugee program a few weeks ago, I made very clear at the time: there would not be a religious test. There would be a security test. And that is because freedom of religion is a fundamental Constitutional principle. It’s a founding principle of this country.
“Normally I do not comment on what’s going on in the presidential election. I will take an exception today. This is not conservatism. What was proposed yesterday is not what this party stands for, and more importantly, is not what this country stands for.
“Not only are there many Muslims serving in our armed forces, dying for this country, there are Muslims serving right here in the House, working every day to uphold and to defend the Constitution. Some of our best and biggest allies in this struggle and fight against radical Islamic terror are Muslims, the vast, vast, vast, vast majority of whom are peaceful, who believe in pluralism and freedom and democracy and individual rights.”
Conservative writer Matt Lewis described this as a “profile in courage.” Mitt Romney popped up to praise Ryan as “on target.” Yahoo News reporter Jon Ward called it a “very strong rebuke of Trump.” NBC’s Luke Russert described it as “forceful.”
And to be clear, Ryan does deserve credit for saying it. Crucially, Ryan pointed out not only that banning Muslims and imposing religious tests go against our values, but also that most Muslim Americans believe in freedom, democracy and individual rights and are playing a crucial role in fighting and dying to defend them and our country against terrorism. Ryan is now faulting Trump’s proposal for crossing into unacceptable territory, for depicting Muslims as an appropriate target for uniform suspicion and dislike, and arguing that this runs counter to both our interests and our values.
But how different is that message from what Obama counseled against in his Oval Office address the other night?
“It is the responsibility of all Americans — of every faith — to reject discrimination. It is our responsibility to reject religious tests on who we admit into this country. It’s our responsibility to reject proposals that Muslim Americans should somehow be treated differently….Muslim Americans are our friends and our neighbors, our co-workers, our sports heroes — and, yes, they are our men and women in uniform who are willing to die in defense of our country. We have to remember that.”
These sentiments are basically identical — on moral and pragmatic grounds — to those expressed by Ryan today. Yet as Jonathan Chait notes, when Obama said all this stuff, Marco Rubio denounced it as “cynicism” that Obama had spent “a significant amount of time talking about discrimination against Muslims.” Rubio added: “Where is there widespread evidence that we have a problem in America with discrimination against Muslims?”
Ryan, however, has now issued a strong condemnation of Trump’s anti-Muslim bigotry. Ryan got to this point later than Obama did — Obama was reacting to Trump’s call for closing mosques, his idea for a Muslim registry, and his suggestion of a religious test (which Ted Cruz also flirted with) for Syrian refugees. Trump’s demagoguing on mosques and Muslim registries wasn’t enough to get Paul Ryan to this point, but ultimately he did get there. If saying this stuff constituted a cynical effort on Obama’s part to falsely hype anti-Muslim discrimination, why is it fine and noble for Ryan to say the same thing?
Obviously Ryan is in a different situation from Obama: Ryan condemned the bigotry of the frontrunner for his own party’s nomination. And again, it’s good that he did this. But this is exactly the point: Trump is putting pressure on other members of the GOP to call out his bigotry for what it is — yet they are not all rising to the challenge.
Rubio, like the other GOP presidential candidates, has condemned Trump’s call for a ban on Muslims, saying: “I disagree with Donald Trump’s latest proposal. His habit of making offensive and outlandish statements will not bring Americans together.” But as Chait also notes, while Rubio attacked Obama’s supposedly cynical motives for condemning anti-Muslim bigotry, Rubio won’t even speculate about Trump’s motives at all, let alone suggest that anti-Muslim bigotry — or an effort to exploit it — might be at their core.
Meanwhile, RNC chair Reince Priebus had this to say today about Trump’s proposal: “I don’t agree. We need to aggressively take on radical Islamic terrorism but not at the expense of our American values.” That’s not exactly a stinging denunciation. Ted Cruz today said: “I commend Donald Trump for standing up and focusing America’s attention on the need to secure our borders.” Cruz also declined to comment on the constitutionality of Trump’s idea. Establishment Republicans are counseling GOP candidates to avoid Trump’s “extreme positioning,” but are tiptoeing around the reasons why Trump’s positioning is appealing to GOP voters.
The reason for all the caution is obvious: Republicans need not only to avoid offending Trump’s voters; they also need to figure out how to tap into the same impulses that he has, albeit in a cleaner way. And a new Public Policy Polling survey of North Carolina suggests the challenge they face in that regard. Here is what the poll found about Trump backers’ views:
— 67% of his voters support a national database of Muslims in the United States, to only 14% opposed to it.
— 62% believe his claims that thousands of Arabs cheered in New Jersey when the World Trade Center collapsed, to only 15% who don’t believe that.
— 51% want to see the Mosques in the country shut down, to only 16% against that.
— And only 24% of Trump supporters in the state even think Islam should be legal at all in the United States, to 44% who think it shouldn’t be.
That mirrors many other polls showing broad GOP agreement with Trump’s views.
The bottom line is that Ryan has now illustrated by example what these other Republicans could be doing, but aren’t, because they apparently can’t. (Lindsey Graham also deserves credit for doing the same.) Only a few days ago, when Obama said precisely the same things that Ryan is now saying, Rubio denounced it as a cynical effort to hype anti-Muslim bigotry. But now that Trump has called for an outright ban on Muslims coming here, this is a bridge too far, so it is now deemed praiseworthy for Ryan to condemn the bigotry at its core. Ryan does deserve praise for doing so. But the stance that both he and Obama now hold should have been the baseline for public officials to begin with.