With the GOP presidential debate tonight likely to broadcast the ugliness of Trumpism to the nation once again, House Speaker Paul Ryan has given an interesting interview to USA Today in which he attacks Barack Obama for having “degraded the presidency” with his State of the Union speech.

Ryan’s comments are noteworthy because they unwittingly illuminate the broader dilemma that more sober-minded Republicans face as they grapple with the rise of Trumpism among their voters and what it means for the party in 2016 — dynamics that will be on full display tonight. Here’s what Ryan said:

Ryan said he agreed with Obama that Trump’s proposal to temporarily ban Muslim immigrants from the United States was a bad idea. “Putting a religious test on anybody coming to this country is wrong,” the Wisconsin Republican said. “We ought to have a security test, not a religious test. That’s who we are.
“But I think it sort of degrades the presidency to then talk about primary politics in the other party, during primaries. That’s not what presidents ought to be talking about in State of the Union addresses…Speaking up for our values and speaking up for our beliefs is one thing. But kind of wading into the primary politics of the other party is just not really what presidents ought to do.”

In his speech, Obama insisted that immigrants are not to blame for people’s economic suffering and called for the rejection of any politics that scapegoat people on the basis of race or religion, arguing that such xenophobia and demagoguery is antithetical to American values and will weaken the country. This was plainly a reference to Donald Trump, but also to Ted Cruz, who has adopted a hard line on immigration and has tacitly dabbled in anti-Muslim demagoguery.

President Obama take shots at GOP candidates, expresses one of his "few regrets," and says he's confident " that the state of our union is strong." (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

Of course, Paul Ryan himself agrees with much of this. Ryan was widely hailed as courageous for rebuking Trumpism not long ago, in comments denouncing the idea of any religious test for entry and asserting that many Muslim Americans believe, and are fighting for, freedom and democracy. And in the interview with USA Today, Ryan agreed on the substance with Obama’s criticism of Trump. But despite his agreement with Obama’s sentiments, Ryan doesn’t want Obama expressing them, because that constitutes presidential interference with GOP primary politics.

The White House has defended Obama’s decision to call out this demagoguery on the grounds that its dark, angry pessimism is bad for the country. After all, Trump appears to be exploiting sentiments that are very real — a sense among many economically struggling Americans that the recovery and our political institutions have left them behind — by telling them a tale in which their struggles can be blamed on immigrants and can be solved with Fortress America solutions. Obama recognizes the reality of these sentiments — and offered his own set of explanations and prescriptions — but saw an obligation to use this high profile setting to forcefully rebut Trump’s efforts to seduce millions of these voters.

Ryan agrees that Trump’s demagoguery is bad for America. But however sincerely Ryan believes that, he also knows full well that the more attention Trumpism gets, the worse it is for the GOP. As the Associated Press reports today, Ryan is trying to use his Speakership to “position the GOP as a positive alternative” to the Democrats, and to offer “messages of diversity and openness to immigrants” that will serve as an “antidote” to Trump. GOP leaders know the party needs to showcase a positive, inclusive image to independents, and to those growing voter groups that are increasingly part of the Democratic coalition, such as millennials, socially liberal college educated whites, and Latinos. As GOP strategist Brian Walsh puts it, leaders like Ryan need to show that the GOP is “not about Donald Trump.”

Of course, for the time being, anyway, it appears that a nontrivial swath of the GOP electorate is in fact “about Donald Trump.” The basic dilemma GOP leaders face is they need to contain Trumpism, while preventing it from drawing too much attention and thus staining the party, and without alienating those GOP voters who are responding positively to it. And so, Obama’s decision to shine such a glaring light on Trumpism — and, by extension, to forcefully align the Democratic Party with a message of cultural inclusion and tolerance that contrasts sharply with the rhetoric coming out of the GOP primary battle — is less than helpful in that regard.


 * VERY TIGHT RACE AMONG DEMS IN IOWA: A new gold-standard Des Moines Register poll finds Hillary Clinton clinging to a statistically insignificant two point lead among likely Dem Iowa caucus-goers, 42-40. Here’s what’s driving Sanders’ surge:

Sanders leads Clinton decisively among three demographics responsible for the president’s 2008 upset: 52 percent to 34 percent among first-time caucus-goers; 62 percent to 21 percent among independents; and 59 percent to 27 percent among people under 45. Together those demographics comprise 57 percent of all likely Democratic caucus-goers.

The question now is whether Sanders can get those first-time caucusgoers and young people to turn out for him.

* SANDERS OUTGUNNING CLINTON IN IOWA ADS: Bloomberg Politics offers this explanation for Sanders’ surge in Iowa:

According to data compiled by the ad-tracking firm Kantar/CMAG, Sanders has outgunned Clinton in broadcast television ad buys over the last month, with the biggest disparity coming in Iowa. The senator has purchased 5,042 spots to Clinton’s 3,620. Many of those ads focus on his role as a champion of the poor and middle class.

Of course, the Iowa caucuses are notorious for turning on ground organizations, and the Clinton campaign, wary of making the same mistake it did in 2008, is reported to have built a very formidable one.

The contest to consolidate moderate Republicans and “establishment” supporters between Rubio, Bush, Christie, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich resembles a bucket of crabs….Trump and Cruz have finally abandoned their buddy act and are in open warfare….The polls are tight, voters are paying attention, and everyone is running out of time to get their message across.


* THE NATION ENDORSES BERNIE SANDERS: The Nation’s argument for endorsing Sanders is definitely worth a read:

Voters can trust Sanders because he doesn’t owe his political career to the financial overlords of the status quo….Sanders alone proposes to break up the too-big-to-fail banks; to invest in public education, from universal pre-K to tuition-free public college…He alone proposes to empower workers with a living wage. He alone stands ready to put Americans to work rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, and to confront climate change by making the United States a leader in renewable energy. His audacious agenda proves that money in politics doesn’t widen debate; rather, it narrows the range of possibility. While Sanders understands this, we fear that his chief rival for the Democratic nomination does not.

It’s a well-argued endorsement in many ways, though it errs in citing head-to-head general election polls as evidence of his electability, when in reality those polls are largely meaningless.

* CLINTON-SANDERS WAR RAGES OVER HEALTH CARE: Vox has a good explainer, noting that Clinton is attacking Sanders’ single-payer plan as too risky because it would devolve power to states to implement it (even though the feds would step do it where states failed). Bottom line:

Clinton’s campaign is trying to obscure is that Sanders wants to move the country all the way to a single-payer system, in which everyone would have government-provided health insurance, and Clinton doesn’t….the fight Clinton and her campaign picked only underscores the thin line they’re walking. Clinton is the candidate who doesn’t want to alienate single-payer supporters, and Sanders is the candidate who actually supports single-payer health care.

Clinton wants to build on Obamacare instead. The question is whether that will alienate more liberal Dem primary voters who support single-payer.

 * CLINTON ATTACK ON SANDERS RATED ‘TRUE’: Clinton has been attacking Sanders for voting for the “Charleston loophole,” which amended the 1993 Brady bill to shorten the time period before someone can buy a gun without passing a background check. That may have enabled Charleston shooter Dylann Roof, who killed nine people, to get a gun. Glenn Kessler takes a hard look at the facts and determines that she is right.

As Kessler notes: “The vote in question took place almost a quarter-century ago, but there is a relatively straight line from the 1993 vote to the 2015 shooting.” Sanders opposed the Brady law, which is significant, though he now says he supports universal background checks.

The scene as Obama delivers his final State of the Union address

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 12: US President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on January 12, 2016 at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)