CLEVELAND — House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell fell in line behind Donald Trump on Tuesday night, the Republican Party’s two most powerful elected leaders backing the GOP’s presidential nominee despite months of awkward embraces and occasional spats.
For a few hours at least, everyone was on the same page, together under the banner of denying Hillary Clinton the presidency in November. But let there be no mistake: The leaders’ agendas are not limited to keeping Clinton out of the White House. In the end, they will care more about preserving their congressional majorities, advancing ideas that will at times clash with those of Trump and being ready to pick up the pieces if their nominee falls short in November.
Ryan (Wis.) and McConnell (Ky.) are pragmatic politicians. They know how to count and they know better than to challenge the will of the voters — especially in a year in which the voters have shown their dissatisfaction and disdain for most political leaders. Trump was not their first choice for the party’s nominee. They would have preferred several of his many rivals. But numbers are power, and Trump had them: votes, states and ultimately delegates.
It wasn’t that long ago that the story of the Republican presidential race was about the implausibility of Trump as nominee. When the unthinkable became possible, the story shifted to the obstacles that stood in his path. Could he secure the 1,237 delegates needed to clinch the nomination by the time of the national convention?
By the time the roll was called Tuesday night, every bit of drama had been drained from the moment. Trump’s formal nomination was remarkable for just how unremarkable that roll call turned out to be.
In Cleveland, he brushed aside the last shreds of opposition with a show of muscle that left the losers disgruntled but reminded the leaders that, by underestimating him, they had helped make his nomination possible.
The Never Trump forces were unable to find an alternative. Party leaders, the most prominent being 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, tried to block his path, only to be rolled over by a candidate who understood the state of the Republican Party better than those who called themselves leaders.
When the roll was called, Trump had 1,725 votes. The rest were distributed as follows: 475 for Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.); 120 for Ohio Gov. John Kasich; 114 for Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.); seven for retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson; three for former Florida governor Jeb Bush; and two for Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.).
Cruz has not endorsed Trump but will speak here this week. Kasich hasn’t endorsed the nominee and will not appear. Rubio has signaled that he will vote for Trump but is absent this week. Bush has done everything he can to trash the nominee. Ryan and McConnell were not losers so much as they have become hostages to Trump. For the sake of their respective conferences, they have decided they must embrace him, even though it has been awkward at times.
Throughout the nomination battle, Ryan and McConnell spoke out against Trump when they thought he had crossed lines that put the party at risk. They did it the day after he declined to distance himself from Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. They did it again when Trump accused U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel of bias against him because the judge is of Mexican heritage.
But unlike Kasich and Bush and the others, they concluded that they did not have the luxury to stand apart from Trump’s candidacy. McConnell moved fairly quickly; Ryan was a temporary holdout, waiting on his endorsement for a few weeks until yielding to the inevitable. Even so, McConnell was met with scattered boos from the convention floor, another sign that this gathering is in the hands of Trump and not the party establishment.
On Tuesday night, both were on message. McConnell took up the baton from Monday’s opening session, delivering a sharp attack against Clinton as someone who can’t be trusted and won’t tell the truth. “She lied about her emails,” he said. “She lied about her server. She lied about Benghazi. She lied about sniper fire. She even lied about why her parents named her Hillary.”
Ticking through a series of issues on which Clinton had changed her mind, McConnell said, “Hillary has changed her positions so many times, it’s impossible to tell where conviction ends and ambition begins.”
For McConnell, the attacks were payback for Clinton’s efforts, along with those of her husband, former president Bill Clinton, to unseat him in his Senate reelection campaign two years ago. But his praise for Trump was far from expansive. Instead, he argued that Trump would sign bills approved by a Republican Senate and a Republican House, measures that he said Clinton would never support.
Ryan spent less time attacking Clinton and more time contrasting conservative ideas with those of liberals and progressives. Ideas are Ryan’s passion. “There is a reason people in our country are disappointed and restless,” he said. “If opportunity seems like it’s been slipping away, that’s because it has. And liberal progressive ideas have done exactly nothing to help. . . . It’s the latest chapter of an old story: Progressives deliver everything except progress.”
But Ryan barely mentioned Trump. Outlining his aspirations for a conservative governing agenda, he said, “Only with Donald Trump and Mike Pence do we have a chance at a better way.” And when he talked about November, he didn’t lead by calling for the election of Trump. Instead, he put it this way: “This year of surprises and dramatic turns can end in the finest possible way — when America elects a conservative governing majority.”
That’s the overriding priority for Ryan and McConnell: Republican majorities in the House and the Senate and, if possible, a Republican in the White House who will take his cues from the ideas and legislation they send him. Ryan closed his speech with an impassioned call for unity between now and November, recognizing the perils of continued divisions and a lack of enthusiasm.
Republican leaders know their Senate majority will be at risk if Trump loses. They are prepared to insulate themselves from his candidacy, to cut him loose, if that becomes necessary. Individual candidates already are doing just that.
Conservatives who care about what the party stands for know that a Trump presidency threatens to undermine conservatism as they have known it and practiced it since Ronald Reagan was president. Ryan has set himself up as the promoter of a positive, reformed conservatism that he has made clear is far different from the brand of politics Trump has championed on his way to the unlikely nomination that was formalized Tuesday night.
Ryan and McConnell are tied to Trump this week, for the success of the convention and to send the party faithful into the fall campaign motivated to work hard. But it is an uneasy relationship, and each side is well aware of that.