The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell took such different approaches to supporting Donald Trump

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.). (Scott Applewhite/AP)
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House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s deepest ideological instincts were formed in the conservative movement of the 1980s. “You have to understand, I come from the conservative wing of the party, I’m a movement conservative,” the Wisconsin Republican told a small group of reporters soon after becoming speaker.

Three weeks later, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) explained that his first instincts were to help get his endangered Republican incumbents reelected, right down to scheduling votes on legislation. “Our majority will be maintained only if we do well in purple states,” McConnell said in a December interview with The Washington Post.

That distance between two of the three most important Republicans in the nation is at the core of how Ryan and McConnell came to such different conclusions about what to do about the emergence of the other most powerful Republican: Donald Trump.

On Wednesday evening, 24 hours after Trump won the Indiana primary and knocked out his remaining presidential contenders, McConnell released a tepid statement saying he would support the nominee. By Thursday afternoon Ryan appeared on CNN to question Trump’s conservative credentials on key policy positions, lambaste his campaign of “belittlement” toward women and minorities, and said he was not yet prepared to support Trump.

[Ryan says he is ‘not ready’ to back Trump, deepening GOP divide]

That Ryan-McConnell split also explains a broader divide among Republicans here in Washington. Much of the Republican political class is coming to terms with the inevitable — Trump will be their nominee — and figuring out how best to handle what they consider a bad situation.

But for the idealists — some say ideologues — who came of age worshiping the Ronald Reagan doctrine of free markets, strong national defense and an optimistic “shining city upon a hill” tone, they cannot countenance Trump taking over what they still consider a conservative party.

Ryan, 46, is very much in this wing of the party. He cited his late political mentor, Jack Kemp, a 1980s congressman whose optimistic economic vision became a bedrock conservative principle, in his declaration that “I’m not there yet” in supporting Trump.

Today’s conservative intelligentsia has been so flummoxed by Trump’s ascendancy because, on so many issues, he is squarely against Ryan’s worldview. Trump is ready to start trade wars with China and other nations, rather than support trade deals that Ryan himself helped craft as a committee chairman before he became speaker. Trump has criticized lawmakers for considering sweeping changes to Social Security and Medicare, the very issues that sparked the rise of Ryan when he released budgets with optimistic titles like “Pathway to Prosperity” that included radical changes in entitlement policy.

Perhaps the only thing they seem to share these days is a love of the media and the back-and-forth jousting it provides — yet Trump uses his TV appearances to advance slash-and-burn tactics with opponents, while Ryan frequents shows to talk about a “confident America” with bold conservative ideas to help the poor.

“A lot of Republicans want to see is that we have a standard bearer that bears our standards,” Ryan told Jake Tapper on CNN’s “The Lead” Thursday.

[Ryan tries to pivot from “disheartened state of politics" – without ever mentioning Donald Trump]

What’s stunning to these Reagan-worshiping disciples is that a lot of Republican voters don’t want someone who bears Ryan’s standards. Trump did not just win the nomination, but he has, quite simply, routed the field.

“The man has won over 10 million votes,” said Josh Holmes, a top political adviser to McConnell. That’s more votes than any Republican ever in a presidential primary.

Looking at that equation, McConnell made a different, highly tactical decision on Trump. Sticking by his previous assurances he would support the nominee, McConnell said that the businessman had some work ahead of him. “As the presumptive nominee, he now has the opportunity and the obligation to unite our party around our goals,” McConnell said in a brief statement.

Advisers to both GOP leaders confirmed that each side knew ahead of time what was coming. Ryan’s and McConnell’s chiefs of staff, David Hoppe and Sharon Soderstrom, are close friends who first worked together in the 1980s. They remain in close contact over each decision, and did so this week.

Where Ryan saw Trump’s ideological apostasies, McConnell saw a simple reality that he needs to make the best of: Trump no longer has any opponent and he’s going to be the nominee, collecting votes from tens of millions of Americans in November.

It’s time to figure out how those endangered Republicans — eight of whom are facing tough competition in states that will also be presidential battlegrounds — can appeal to middle-of-the-road voters who will ultimately tip the balance in their races but also not alienate the Trump supporters.

“McConnell has never spent a lot of time wringing his hands about situations he cannot control,” Holmes said. “His job is to run the Senate and help his members and stay out of their way as they navigate their state’s politics.”

Some Washington insiders suggested that Ryan’s move gave endangered House Republicans cover to take similar positions and steer clear of Trump questions. Instead, Democrats said Ryan gave them the freedom to keep asking, almost daily, whether Trump had “earned” their vote, a position that Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) took Friday in her suburban battleground district.

“This starts an alarm clock that will go off eventually,” Matt Thornton, communications director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said. “By setting up the ‘earn my vote’ standard, Republicans are only begging the question, ‘OK, what does that mean?’ When will Trump earn your vote?”

McConnell considers himself an artful tactician who rarely hands his opponents a weapon to use against him. Ever since Ryan began talking about drafting a “bold” agenda for Republicans, McConnell has given polite public support without any assurances his candidates would support it, lest some proposal be too far reaching for any of them.

“Before taking up measures, I’m going to be in consultation with my members, and it is a fact that we have a number of members up in purple states this year,” McConnell said in December.

Ryan never held back, promising early on a vision based on his upbringing under Kemp. “The conservative movement is beginning to concentrate itself on the fact that 2016 is everything, and the best way to have the best outcome is to unify by applying our principles to ideas and offering an agenda. So to me, the best path to unify is to propose and offer an exciting agenda,” the new speaker told reporters back in November.

It’s just no longer clear which Republicans agree with the exciting agenda Paul Ryan wants to craft.