As a member of Congress, there are many ways to stake out a reputation as a lonely, iconoclastic man of principle. Being elected speaker of the House is not typically one of them.
But that is where Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) finds himself as Donald Trump assumes the title of presumptive Republican presidential nominee — torn between the conservative principles he has spent his adult life advocating and his institutional responsibility as House speaker to respect GOP voters’ choice of standard-bearer.
Ryan’s own political future as a national leader hangs in that balance, and Thursday’s meeting made clear that his only viable path through the dilemma involves cooperation from Trump, who has premised his candidacy on standing apart not only from party leaders but also policy ideas Ryan holds dear.
A joint statement released by the two men Thursday appeared to chart a path to comity. But any alliance would bind Ryan more closely to Trump’s incessant cycle of controversy and threaten to tarnish his cerebral image.
“While we were honest about our few differences, we recognize that there are also many important areas of common ground,” the statement said. “We will be having additional discussions, but remain confident there’s a great opportunity to unify our party and win this fall, and we are totally committed to working together to achieve that goal.”
The breadth of that common ground remains to be seen. Trump’s appeals to “make America great” and to start “winning again” are rooted in populist fervor, not American Enterprise Institute white papers, and he has so far bucked suggestions that he moderate his tone or offer more concrete policy proposals.
“You win the pennant and now you’re in the World Series — you gonna change?” Trump told the New York Times this week. “People like the way I’m doing.”
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Ryan declined to endorse Trump, explaining their “policy teams are meeting to work through the details” of their positions. The speaker is also intending to release his own agenda on issues like health care, national security and taxes before the July convention, of which he is still offering to be chair.
The speaker conceded there are “policy disputes” between the two Republicans, but chose to emphasize the “core principles” he expects Trump to share: supporting limited government, opposing abortion rights and appointing conservative judges.
Left unmentioned were the significant policy matters — on trade, on immigration, on entitlement spending — where the two men are fundamentally opposed.
“Look, there are just things we really believe in as conservatives,” he said. “We believe in limited government. We believe in the Constitution. We believe in the proper role of the differences in the separation of powers. We believe in things like life. … These are things that are important to us.”
But it is has not been Trump’s adherence to gauzy principles that has been most troublesome for Ryan and the House Republicans who elected him speaker.
Rather, it is the other aspects of his candidacy — the call for a ban on Muslim immigration, the kid-gloves treatment of white supremacists, the mocking of a disabled reporter, the refusal to denounce violence at his rallies — that have prompted Ryan and other party leaders to speak out.
For Ryan, the peril is clear. Controversies of that magnitude are likely to persist and are certain to poison his ability to do what he sees as his life’s work: weaving small-government principles into the mainstream of American politics. Associating himself with Trump’s controversial brand may not only have consequences for his House majority, but also dent his personal political ambitions.
More broadly, Trump’s triumph represents a rebuke of the careful efforts undertaken to remake the GOP brand after Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential race with Ryan on the ticket. Following that race, the Republican National Committee issued an “autopsy” calling for outreach to minority voters, and Ryan renounced his own rhetorical division of Americans into “makers” and “takers.”
Now, after six-month stretch where Ryan has attempted to unite Republicans in pursuit of ideas, Trump is staking his claim as GOP leader with a campaign where ideas have largely been an afterthought.
Since Trump ascended to presumptive nominee, Ryan’s approach has been driven by dual imperatives — one personal, to stay true to principles he has promoted for decades, and one political, to give House members space to contend with Trump on their own terms. But there is mounting pressure on the speaker to get on the Trump train.
“Clearly, the standard bearer of the Republican party is the Republican nominee for president, and when elected, the president of the United States is the face of the Republican Party,” said Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), who was among the first House members to endorse Trump earlier this year.
Should the two fail to reconcile, Collins said Thursday, “No question, Paul Ryan would have more to lose if he doesn’t, because Mr. Trump’s going to be our next president — the speaker needs a relationship with the next president of the United States.”
In the House, Ryan leads an institution where principle is, by design, subsumed by political reality. While scores of Republican lawmakers share Ryan’s concerns about Trump, very few have declared they will stand against him, and a growing number of the queasy are saying they will support him.
The No. 2 and No. 3 House Republican leaders, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and Majority Whip Steve Scalise (La.), are both overt Trump supporters. Only Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), the highest-ranking woman in GOP leadership and the mother of a disabled child, shares Ryan’s qualms.
In a sign of the pressure mounting on Ryan, other prominent Republicans fell in line behind Trump Thursday.
Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah — the longest-serving sitting Republican senator, who represents a state where only 14 percent of GOP voters voted for Trump — gave the businessman an unequivocal endorsement after meeting with Trump. “I totally endorse him,” Hatch told reporters at the Capitol. “We want him to win and we want him to be the next president.”
And moments before Trump left GOP headquarters, he won support from Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee and the man charged with getting Republicans elected to the House in November.
“While I may disagree with the rhetoric Mr. Trump uses and some policy positions, he is the better option than Hillary Clinton in the White House,” Walden said.
That has become a default answer for Republicans uneasy about Trump, and it is one that Ryan himself embraced Thursday.
“Here’s what we agree on: A Hillary Clinton presidency would be a disaster for this country,” he said. “So the question is, can we unify around our common principles to offer the country a compelling and clear choice and an agenda going forward, so that the men and women of this nation get a real and honest choice about how to fix this country and get us on a better track? And I am very encouraged that we can put that together.”
On this Trump and Ryan agree: It sure would be great to start winning again.