Opinion writer
U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin, speaks at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, March 23, 2016. Ryan's call in a speech on Wednesday for elevating the political debate to inspire and unite Republicans carried a huge, unspoken subtext: Donald Trump. Photographer: Drew Angerer/Bloomberg *** Local Caption *** Paul Ryan Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) (Drew Angerer/Bloomberg)

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan stunned the cynical world by standing up for principle in announcing today that — for now at least — he will not be endorsing Donald Trump. Appearing on CNN, the GOP’s highest elected official told Jake Tapper, “I’m not there right now.” He explained that he wanted to see a change in tone from Trump. “It’s time to set aside bullying, it’s time to set aside belittlement,” he said. He also made clear it was up to Trump to show he is an actual conservative and to unify the party.

It was quintessential Ryan. As someone who has worked closely with him for years put it, “While appreciating that many Republicans do support the nominee and that many never will, the speaker hopes that insisting that no one’s vote be taken for granted (including his own), will help strengthen our party and improve our chances this fall, while hopefully giving some voice to those who feel disaffected by the nominee.” That is one way of looking at it. Another is to stop the herd from blindly following Trump over the cliff as many Republicans (including former candidates) have done.

A current senior staffer put it even more clearly to me: “Bottom line, based on the campaign that he has run thus far, the speaker is not comfortable giving an endorsement at this point. He will make clear he will never support Hillary Clinton and that he hopes there’s not a need for a third party candidate (which he will not be, just to be clear).”

It is extraordinary — unprecedented really — that the speaker of one party would leave open the possibility — hint, even — at the prospect of a competing party in the general election.

There are several main takeaways from this. First, the twists and turns in this race are far from over. Second, the meek Republicans who lined up like lemmings behind Trump now, to be blunt, look dumb. Ryan is showing that standing up on principle is possible. If he can do it they can as well. Third, this helps preserve the status quo and may well freeze up money for the time being. Fourth, it follows announcements from Mitt Romney that he will not attend the convention and from George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush that they will not even endorse. We are redefining here the meaning of “party.” Fifth, Trump is not capable of changing and has no convictions so it will be near impossible for him to comply with Ryan’s requirements on tone and substance. Maybe that is the point: If he cannot do the bare minimum to show that he is conservative and he can behave, conservatives will need to look elsewhere.

Finally, this is a blow to Ryan’s friend and fellow Wisconsinite RNC chairman Reince Priebus who has been lamely trying to get the GOP to unify and dismissing #NeverTrump forces. His spokesman today denied a report in the New York Times that some RNC staffers “were told Wednesday that if they were unable to get behind the nominee, they should leave by the end of the week. An RNC spokeswoman refused to disclose how many staffers have left the RNC in the last month.

In sum, the prospect of a breakaway conservative candidate or party remains alive. Trump is struggling to corral Republicans, and will no doubt find this demand beyond his abilities. The GOP primary voters have spoken — and they’ve made a mess. Who steps in, if someone steps in and how someone steps in to prevent a total meltdown on the right are anyone’s guess.