Paul Ryan is playing the game by Donald Trump rules.
Known as the somber-faced, mild-of-manner, would-be adult in the GOP’s play room, Ryan offered up more than what the headline writers are calling a “rebuke” of the Donald’s candidacy.
In Trumpian terms, the GOP speaker knocked the crap out of the whole idea of Trump as the new face of the GOP, shocking nearly everyone in the GOP establishment along the way.
Ryan went on CNN to say he was “not ready” to endorse Trump, which was startling in and of itself. But Ryan actually went much farther than that. He seemed to be saying that unless Trump came to him and other conservative leaders on bent knee, promising to be more like them — and, of course, nothing like himself — that he could never support Trump.
In the process, Ryan set terms — Trump had to be more of a traditional conservative and less of a bully (yes, he actually said it’s time for Trump to “set aside bullying, to set aside belittlement”) — that Trump is never going to meet. Instead, Trump countered that he was “not ready” to endorse Ryan’s agenda.
And if you lose Ryan … Well.
In his first days as the presumptive GOP nominee, Trump has already lost both Bush presidents. And he’s lost Mitt Romney. And he’s lost George Will. And he’s lost The National Review. So much for the Trumpian unity tour.
Ryan, meanwhile, is losing Sean Hannity. And that may just be the beginning.
Trump has made competing noises about whether he needs Republican unity, but of course he does … and he doesn’t. How do you stay Trumpian – which has gotten him this far — and still appeal to the many people you’ve willfully and gleefully offended? It’s a conundrum, all right, as they say in the really good schools.
He has already rushed back to the center on minimum wage — he’s ready to deal — and on taxes – maybe it’s not a good idea to give billionaires all the money — and in a Trumpian move that says everything about him, he Tweeted a picture of himself on Cinco de Mayo eating a “Taco bowl” from the Trump Grill while saying that he “loved the Hispanics.”
Ryan, meanwhile, was saying that Trump needed to meet the standards of the party of Lincoln, of Reagan, of Jack Kemp. In case you missed the reference, Jack Kemp – one of Ryan’s heroes — was the Republican who famously tried to do minority outreach when the party was busily demonizing minorities. Let’s just say it didn’t work. But Ryan used Kemp as a way of saying that Trump’s stands on Mexican “rapists” and the banning of Muslims and his unwillingness to condemn David Duke weren’t in line with Kemp, although much of it seems to be in line with Republican voters.
You could see this as a fight for the soul of the Republican Party, although that might be giving too much credit all around. Ryan is trying to save the Republican House majority, which, last I looked, had wasted the nation’s time by voting every other day to repeal Obamacare. Trump’s appeal is that the party has sold out its voters — something you or I might agree with, at least until Trump gets to the part that to win them back, they need to join him in his nationalistic (some actually say fascistic) American-first-ing movement. He has been winning with it, and, unlike Ryan, he’s got a slogan and a hat.
I’m no fan of Ryan. He may knock Trump for bullying, but it was the Ayn-Rand-spouting Ryan who once, in an argument over unemployment benefits, called the safety net a “hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency.” But give him credit here. He made a real stand — one that less-bold Republicans (can you hear me, Cory Gardner?) might embrace.
He might have made it earlier when, you know, it could have helped to stop Trump. But during the actual campaign, Ryan was saying that though he had reservations, he would support the Republican nominee. It was only when Trump won that Ryan formed his own branch of #NeverTrumpists.
Certainly Ryan’s play was a little bolder than the Kelly Ayotte play — in which the embattled New Hampshire senator said she “supports” Trump, but won’t “endorse” him, as if there were any distinction between the two. As soon as I heard it, I expected Gardner to endorse Ayotte, but then she was roundly mocked and we haven’t heard from Gardner since.
What Ryan did was change the conversation. One of the real fears that all political types have is the tendency for the political and media establishments to normalize the least normal of races. It’s what they do. It doesn’t matter that only one side is quoting Mussolini or that only one side is proposing an unworkable and un-American ban on Muslims and only one side has called women “dogs,” we are used to two-sided races, which must follow a set of rules even if Trump doesn’t.
But normal-seeming Ryan has changed the narrative, at least for now, by saying Trump is not normal. Ben Sasse is calling for an independent run. Romney, while denying it, seems to be offering himself as a third-party candidate.
Meanwhile, shocked party leaders – like Newt Gingrich, who some are suggesting should be Trump’s vice-president; yes, really — are talking up a Trump-Ryan summit meeting, in which the two could work out their differences. I’m old enough to remember when something like that might have worked. We’ve got six months to see if it still can.
Mike Littwin writes for The Colorado Independent (www.coloradoindependent.com).