CLEVELAND — House Speaker Paul Ryan would like to pretend that the Trump rebellion never happened and that Donald Trump is not the Republican nominee. At the same time, he knows that Trump actually is the party’s nominee and that this puts many of his House Republicans in a political pickle this fall.
This contradiction helps explain why, to draw on scripture, Ryan’s trumpet regularly gives an uncertain sound. He has decided he has to support Trump, but he wants you to know he’s not happy about it. On Monday, he told a Wall Street Journal lunch that Trump is “not my kind of conservative.” His relationship with Trump, he said, was “very frank” and that “there are things I take issue with.” Still, there he was endorsing Trump at the Republican National Convention on Tuesday night. He wants to pretend (or hope) that despite the nature of Trump’s campaign, his victory would really be a victory for garden variety conservatism.
Thus did a certain ambivalence and equivocation run through Ryan’s address. Ryan did mention Trump twice, at the beginning and toward the end of his address. But he summarized his real objective this way: “This year of surprises and dramatic turns can end in the finest possible way – when America elects a conservative governing majority.” In this telling, the election is no longer about Trump and his various heresies on trade, Medicare and Social Security. It is about what Ryan wants: that “conservative governing majority.”
The rest of his speech could have been given in support of Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush or Ted Cruz. It was mostly a recitation of what conservatives have been saying about liberals for three decades, directed in this case against Hillary Clinton and President Obama, whom he accused of having a record of “discarded promises, empty gestures, phony strawman arguments, reforms put off forever, shady power plays, like the one that gave us Obamacare, constitutional limits brushed off as nothing, and, all the while, dangers in the world downplayed, even as the threats grow bolder and come closer.”
The line you know Ryan particularly liked was this one: “It’s the latest chapter of an old story: progressives deliver everything except progress.”
Ryan’s two-step is a response to the political difficulties faced by Republicans this fall in what are now or could become swing districts. These Republicans don’t want to draw too close to Trump, lest they alienate the large middle ground of the electorate that is extremely uneasy of a candidate they see as unsafe and unpresidential. But the same candidates do not want to alienate a Trump constituency that makes up about half of the Republican Party’s base and in some districts and states, more. These candidates may not be able to win with Trump, but they also can’t win without his supporters.
Ryan is trying to offer such Republicans a way around this problem, even if his approach involves ignoring one of the major reasons for Trump’s rise: the impatience of many working-class Republicans with free market bromides that do little to enhance their economic situations. They get little out of tax cuts for the wealthy and have grown increasingly skeptical of free trade. As the conservative writers Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam wrote recently in the New York Times, “despite its ‘party of the rich’ reputation, the Republican Party [has] increasingly depended on mostly white working-class support, even as its policy agenda was increasingly unresponsive to working-class voters’ problems and concerns.”
Douthat and Salam have their own agenda, but neither Ryan nor anyone else in Cleveland has offered these voters much in the way of concrete help. The premise seems to be that harping on Clinton’s real or imagined sins (and, in the case of Ben Carson, tying her to Lucifer) will be enough to produce the “conservative governing majority” Ryan longs for.