On Tuesday night, as Donald Trump effectively locked up the Republican presidential nomination, Philip Klein left the party.
The only solace came on Thursday afternoon, when House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said he could not support Trump — not yet. The presumptive Republican nominee did not support the Republican agenda — Ryan's agenda — and so he could not yet back the nominee. "It’s time to set aside bullying, to set aside belittlement, and appeal to higher aspirations, appeal to what is good in us," the speaker said.
Klein, and other Republicans rejecting Trump, saw an opening. It was not what Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) had called for — an ad hoc third-party campaign that would run on something like the Ryan agenda. Instead, it was the Ryan agenda separated from the politics that actually exist now. The rift, Klein said, "may actually be a blessing for Republicans," who have been derided so far for saying they can vote for Trump but not endorse him.
"In Trump-friendly districts, House Republicans can say, 'I back the nominee of our party,'" Klein said. "But in districts where Trump is more toxic, they can say, 'Look, I've signed on to support a specific reform agenda, which Trump has thus far not agreed to get behind, so I cannot support him at this time.' In the longer run, it also helps them escape the taint of Trump should Trump lose in November, as is widely expected."
There is scant evidence that Ryan's agenda is an election winner in itself. In 2012, Ryan was his party's vice-presidential nominee. Yet even before that he was the symbol that Democrats ran against. His budget that assumed tax cuts and Medicare privatization would lead to growth made "the Contract with America look like the New Deal," according to President Obama. In the end, Ryan could not even carry his home state of Wisconsin for the Republican ticket.
But Ryan's reputation has grown since then — largely in comparison to the GOP's other offerings. His election as speaker gave him a new coat of Teflon, so strong that the failure so far of his 2016 agenda, which included criminal justice reform and a quick fix to Puerto Rico's debt crisis, did not prevent months of speculation on whether he would run for president and save the party.
Ryan's recalcitrance also exploits the way that the media covers politics — as the conquest of an ever-moving "center." On Monday, it would have been difficult for Republicans in Wisconsin, New Hampshire or another purplish state targeted by Democrats this year to show that Ryan's agenda represented moderation. By challenging Trump, who is seen as an extremist, Ryan offers endangered Republicans a chance to say they endorse him, and his agenda — one that will naturally be seen as less extreme.
The speaker's stated qualms with Trump help that cause. Polling, over many years, suggests that Trump's positions on taxes and entitlements are actually far more popular than Ryan's. Voters have said consistently that they favor higher taxes on the rich and on investments, and a higher minimum wage. Ryan opposes all of that. Trump has said that Social Security and Medicare can basically continue as they are and that a sort of premium support can exist for the very poor if (when, he hopes) the Affordable Care Act is unraveled. Ryan disagrees with Trump; voters don't, even when they back Republicans.
#NeverTrump Republicans are hardly optimistic about the election, but by striking out, they have been trying to distinguish the GOP's brand from Trump. Ryan helps.
"I think the only way the party survives and conservatism isn’t discredited for years is if there is a line drawn in the party between those that will wrap their arms around a man they called a pathological liar just months ago, versus those that will stand on principles of conservatism and demand more from their party," said Ben Howe, an editor at RedState whose #NeverTrump advocacy has put him on cable news all week.
"We got where we are by capitulating narratives in favor of alliances, as I mentioned in a column recently," Howe said. "If a rebirth is going to happen, leaders like Ryan can fire the first shot. And, yes, I think giving others a standard bearer to point to could help them in their races."
Klein, for all his problems with Trump, saw a way that the Ryan snub could help him. "Trump will just turn it around and say, 'Yes, some Washington politicians are upset because I'm not beholden to them, but that's because I'm fighting like hell for the American people,'" Klein said. "It's not as if congressional Republicans are super-popular with independent voters."