Why are Republican voters betraying conservatism? WHY???? (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Opinion writer

Paul Ryan has given a fascinating interview to John Harwood that neatly captures the dilemma GOP elites face as they adjust to the unthinkable possibility of the GOP nomination getting captured by Donald Trump.

First, Harwood gets Ryan to essentially admit that he is likely to support Trump if he is the nominee:

HARWOOD: We do have a clear front-runner in the Republican race. You and Donald Trump — how’s that going to work?

RYAN: We’ll make it work if it happens. I’m going to speak my mind. I’m going to defend conservatism as I understand it. I’m going to defend our ideas as the Republican Party. But we’re going to have to work with whoever our nominee is.

Now, this doesn’t rule out a contested convention. Ryan is merely saying he’ll work with whomever the nominee eventually is, and that person could of course be nominated at the convention even if he doesn’t go in with as many delegates as Trump does. However, pressed further on how he could support Trump, given some of the things he has said, Ryan replies:

RYAN: I have to respect the primary voter….I have to respect that process….It’s the primary voter who chooses it….at the end of the day, the Republican primary voter gets to make the decision on who their standard bearer is.

From all this we can infer that if Trump is the nominee, having won a majority of the delegates through primary voting, Ryan will be obliged to support him — no matter how wretched his ideas and rhetoric — because to do otherwise would be to disrespect the voter. Ryan says that as a “pro-growth, constitutional, limited government conservative” who believes in “inclusive, aspirational, optimistic politics,” he reserves the right to speak out where he disagrees with Trump, but if he’s the nominee, he’ll generally have Ryan’s cooperation.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the interview, Ryan also laments the current state of the country under divided government, and dreams aloud about an election that could settle our great ideological conflicts once and for all:

RYAN: You have a conservative Congress on the one hand, and a very liberal, progressive president on the other hand….I really believe what we need is a clarifying election in this country, to ask the men and women who are citizens of this nation, to break this impasse….

What I believe we do is we take an agenda to the country and say, “This is what we think we need to do to fix this country’s big problems. This is how we prevent a debt crisis. This is how we grow the economy.” And then we let the country make a decision. And if we win the kind of election that we’re hoping to win in 2016, not unlike what Ronald Reagan, and my mentor Jack Kemp did in 1980, then we will have earned a mandate from the country to put these things in place.

If only we could have a national election that pitted this “very liberal, progressive president” against a ticket featuring a committed ideological conservative such as Paul Ryan! Oh, wait…

In all seriousness, what this all amounts to is that Republican voters are not cooperating with Ryan’s desire for the 2016 presidential election to comprise a grand ideological showdown between liberalism and “constitutional, limited government conservatism.” As Sahil Kapur details today, Trump’s success shows that Republican voters are not embracing the economic orthodoxy of the elite GOP donor class, and are opting instead for a far more ideologically heterodox agenda. Trump does not reflexively embrace free trade. He vows not to touch entitlements. He has rhetorically assaulted the super-rich for gaming the tax code in their favor and does not regularly sing hymns to trickle down theology. He suggests a general governmental role of some kind in ensuring health care for people who can’t afford it.

Trump’s actual agenda, of course, scams GOP voters: his tax plan does in fact shower a huge windfall on top earners and his plan to replace Obamacare could result in as many as 21 million new uninsured people. He also suggests absurdly that he’d protect struggling Americans’ economic interests and generally make the U.S.A. great again by carrying out mass deportations. But the combination of some of Trump’s proposals (such as they are) and some of his rhetoric does generally illustrate that a lot of GOP voters don’t appear to believe that free markets and limited government contain the keys to their economic salvation.

Harwood asks Ryan about this problem. He presses Ryan on whether blue collar Republican voters are concluding that the GOP economic agenda does more for the highest earners than it does for them, adding: “Isn’t the message that Republican voters have been sending that they want something more from the Republican Party than simply freer markets and less government?” Harwood further asks why it is that GOP voters are supporting the candidate who doesn’t embrace free trade deals and doesn’t support Ryan-type entitlement cuts. Ryan mostly demurs on all these questions, essentially saying that those voters are wrong about all those things.

Whether that’s true or not, the bottom line is that those voters appear to be well on their way to picking Trump, and not a candidate more in line with the limited government conservatism Ryan wishes the GOP standard bearer would embody. Which means the grand, clarifying ideological showdown that Ryan hopes to see will just have to wait until GOP voters are willing to play along.