There is bipartisan agreement in Washington on House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). He is a good man. An earnest man whose devotion to ideas and policy make him an admirable presence in the Capitol. Democrats don’t like his ideas one bit, but they respect the fact that he has them. Ryan is also a decent man. A lead-by-example man who you know in your bones wouldn’t countenance bad manners and bigotry from his children or colleagues. That’s why reactions to his rhetorical embrace of Donald Trump as the Republican presidential nominee range from bemusement to dismay to rage across the political spectrum.
Let’s be clear. Ryan’s said embrace of Trump is a tortured one. When the speaker was asked his thoughts on Trump’s reprehensible and racist comments about Judge Gonzalo Curiel, he was unequivocal. Questioning the federal jurist’s ability to do his job because of his heritage was “the textbook definition of a racist comment.” The effortlessness with which he spoke the truth only highlighted the tortured logic of his support of Trump that has followed. “But do I think Hillary Clinton is the answer? No, I do not,” he said.
MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell on Thursday pressed Ryan on how he could condemn what Trump said and then say he should be president. “It’s really clear with me we have one of two choices: Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump,” he said. That this is the falsest of false choices was articulated in the New York Times by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “There’ll come a time when the love of country will trump hatred of Hillary,” he said.
The politics of what Ryan is doing are plainly apparent. As NBC’s Chuck Todd said, if Ryan were still just a congressman from Wisconsin, there is no question he would join Graham in his full-throated condemnation of and distancing from the bloviating Big Apple billionaire. But as the leader of his conference and his party, he must do everything he can to protect both from losing their majority in the House. That means standing by a racist who won more votes than any Republican who has ever run for the party’s nomination. And it means reckoning with a party where 65 percent of Republicans surveyed in a YouGov poll said Trump’s comments on Curiel were “not racist.”
Ryan is seen as a leader, a man of principle. That’s why colleagues of the 2012 Republican vice-presidential nominee begged him to succeed John Boehner after the former speaker retired this year. Yes, having the elected leader of the party walk away from his party’s presidential nominee would be an unprecedented and risky move. But that’s what leadership is about. Ryan has it within himself to exert it. That he won’t — even in the face of racism that he knows and acknowledges hurts the country, sullies political discourse and will assuredly destroy the GOP — is why there is palpable dismay over his inaction.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj