Paul Ryan's speech Wednesday about the sorry state of American politics included familiar sideswipes at Donald Trump — to the media's great delight. As he has before, the House speaker managed to earn credit for standing up to the GOP's presidential front-runner without actually mentioning him by name.
A Yahoo News headline declared that "Paul Ryan is trying to save the GOP from Donald Trump." How heroic.
Bloomberg News reported that "Ryan's speech was a clear rebuke to Trump's brand of politics." The Huffington Post said Ryan "didn’t necessarily need to use the name Donald Trump for everyone to understand that he was talking about the GOP front-runner when he said 'personalities come and go' or that when someone has a bad idea, we should tell them, not 'insult them into agreeing with us.'"
Ryan (R-Wis.) is quite obviously not a fan of the way Trump campaigns. But here's the thing: He has said repeatedly that he will back the billionaire real estate magnate should Trump win the GOP nomination. This is a major caveat that should temper any praise of Ryan's supposed fortitude -- and any argument that his words carry weight. Given Ryan's clear and deep reservations with the tenor of Trump's campaign and the substance of his policies, it seems odd he wouldn't pledge not to support Trump, as have other Republicans in Congress, including Sen. Ben Sasse (Neb.), Rep. Mark Sanford (S.C.) and Rep. Reid Ribble (Wis.).
Instead, Ryan's position is that any Republican candidate would be better than the Democratic incumbent or either of that party's would-be successors. He told Katie Couric in an interview for Yahoo in January that the country would "absolutely" be better off under Trump than it is under President Obama. As recently as last week, he reiterated that he will back the GOP nominee, no matter whom it is.
Ryan's willingness to throw in with Trump, even begrudgingly, has to weaken his criticism. How can it not?
A cynical way to interpret Ryan's position is that he's saying being bigoted is bad — but not as bad as being a Democrat. Another possible conclusion is that he is putting party before country. Neither is a good look or helps his case.
If we give Ryan the benefit of the doubt, we might assume that he would renounce Trump if he believed the candidate could actually accomplish everything he talks about on the trail. Perhaps feeling confident that Trump's most-alarming proposals would never be implemented, Ryan prefers the rest of his platform to what the Democrats represent. I'll go so far as to say this is probably Ryan's calculus.
But, if it is, the media should push him to explain it. Instead, despite his refusal to rule out supporting Trump, Ryan collected plaudits for declaring in December that the businessman's proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the United States is "not what this country stands for." Time magazine called it a "strong statement from the most powerful elected Republican."
Early this month, Ryan said anyone who wants to be the Republican nominee "must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry" after Trump initially declined to disavow the support of a former Ku Klux Klan leader. The Associated Press noted that "he has tried to avoid commenting on the presidential race but felt a need to speak up." How conscientious.
And when Ryan condemned a pattern of violence at Trump rallies last week, Politico reported that "the speaker has been clear that he is unafraid to speak out against Trump when he believes the candidate is distorting conservative or American principles."
Some accounts of Ryan's various critiques have mentioned his pledge to back Trump in the general election — but not all. It is convenient and tempting for journalists who are troubled by some of Trump's rhetoric to focus on only half of what the speaker has said — the part that fits into a narrative about more sober-minded Republicans denouncing their own party's leading presidential candidate. And it is certainly notable that a Republican House speaker -- the most powerful Republican in Washington -- would say anything negative about the likely GOP nominee.
But the news media shouldn't give Ryan a pass for the other half of what he has said — the part about falling in line behind Trump for the general election.