Instead, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) reprised roles they have grown comfortable in — ideas man and attack dog, respectively — as the GOP nomination battle played out over the past months.
“I am here to tell you Hillary Clinton will say anything, do anything, and be anything to get elected president, and we cannot allow it,” McConnell declared to the arena, earning cheers from a crowd that had booed the entrance of the veteran establishment politician earlier in the evening.
To the extent McConnell mentioned Trump, it was to lay out all of the Senate Republican initiatives — from an Obamacare repeal to the Keystone XL pipeline to a conservative Supreme Court nominee — that a President Trump would support.
McConnell’s declaration came as several GOP senators up for re-election remained far from the convention hall, focusing on their own races amid anxieties about being tied too closely to Trump. National Democratic campaign operatives quickly declared that it “confirmed that the Senate Republican agenda is one in the same with the toxic and divisive Trump agenda.”
Meanwhile, Ryan discharged his duties as convention chairman with good cheer — duties he frequently invoked to deflect questions about Trump during the primary race — even as a brief dispute flared up over the Alaska delegation’s vote tally.
Then, after McConnell and others had delivered a series of sharp attacks on Clinton’s character and record, Ryan returned to the rostrum to cast the election in his preferred manner — not as a clash of personalities or parties, but as a battle of ideas. “2016,” he declared, “is the year America moves on.”
As recently as a few months ago, some speculated Ryan could emerge as a “white knight” nominee at a contested convention as Republicans still struggled to come to terms with Trump’s success.
On Tuesday, Ryan sought to put the upheaval of the primary race into a context other than that of a major American party eating itself alive: “Have we had our arguments this year? Sure we have – and you know what I call those? Signs of life. Signs of a party that’s not just going through the motions.”
Democrats, he said, “are offering a third Obama term, brought to you by another Clinton — and you’re supposed to be excited about that.”
“It still comes down to the contest of ideas,” Ryan continued. “Which is really good news, ladies and gentlemen, because when it’s about ideas, the advantage goes to us.”
The speaker proceeded to lay out the multi-pronged policy agenda he had developed on behalf of House Republicans — an agenda developed apart from the Trump campaign, and one that largely steers clear of the emotional core of the Trump message on trade, immigration and national security.
Instead, the House GOP agenda focuses on Republican proposals for tax reform, health care, business regulations and other areas Trump has given exceedingly short shrift.
Ryan’s message was centered on the prospect of delivering the “conservative governing majority” that can deliver those policies. “None of this will happen under Hillary Clinton,” he said. “Only with Donald Trump and Mike Pence do we have a chance at a better way.”
Ryan was followed on stage by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who less than a year ago appeared poised to become speaker himself before an unforced televised gaffe in which he suggested that a long-running congressional investigation into the 2012 Benghazi attacks was set up to harm Clinton’s presidential prospects.
On Tuesday, McCarthy called Clinton the “definition of the status quo” and mentioned Trump once — only after invoking a famous fellow Californian.
“In these difficult times, I remember the words of President Ronald Reagan when he described America as that shining city upon the hill,” he said. “By electing a Republican Congress, Donald Trump and Mike Pence, we can build a better America and make that shining city upon the hill bright again.”
During a brief appearance by the nine freshman GOP senators whose election in 2014 flipped control of the chamber to Republicans, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) gave remarks on behalf of the group that wrapped up with Trump’s vow to “make American great again.”
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), one of the few GOP Senate candidates not to have avoided Cleveland completely, addressed the convention to highlight his role as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee and his bit role in the Benghazi saga: It was Johnson, he noted at the top of his brief remarks, who elicited Clinton’s famously exasperated response in a congressional hearing on the attacks: “What difference, at this point, does it make?”
But it fell to other, less prominent congressional leaders to deliver Trump a fuller embrace.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), Trump’s earliest and most fervent supporters on Capitol Hill, placed Trump’s name into nomination Tuesday evening, both of them delivering fulsome praise.
“In his personal relations, he is unfailingly courteous and he is positive in nature,” Sessions gushed. “He has tremendous energy and strength. He is a warrior and a winner. He loves his country and is determined to see it be a winner again.
“Donald Trump is the singular leader that can get this country back on track,” he continued. “He has the strength, the courage, and the will to get it done. He and the American people share a common goal, and together we will make America great again.”