Ross Douthat takes Paul Ryan to task for not being more aggressively hostile to Trump:
Yet when he’s asked about the threat that Donald Trump obviously poses to “who we are,” the speaker — despite his admirable willingness to condemn specific Trumpian outrages — can’t bring himself to make a counterendorsement, or voice explicit opposition to Trump’s progress. “I have to respect the primary voter,” he says. “It’s not my decision, it’s their decision.” And, “We’re going to have to work with whoever our nominee is.”
So in sum, faced with a potentially-existential threat to his vision of conservatism (not to mention his House majority), Ryan’s answer is first, change nothing; second, do nothing.
It is telling that Ryan doesn’t really have an answer for addressing the grievances of Trump supporters, but since he doesn’t have one I’m not sure his refusal to second-guess the voters is as damning as Douthat makes it out to be. Ryan should have some ideas for how the GOP could do more for the party’s working-class constituents, but that would require him to acknowledge that the GOP’s current agenda does practically nothing for them now (and he would have to accept that this is a flaw). Given Ryan’s record, that seems unlikely to happen.
Ryan can’t credibly denounce Trump without siding against between two-fifths to one half of his party, and that is an awkward and possibly untenable position for the Speaker to take. Ryan is in many respects representative of the sort of Republicanism that Trump supporters have come to despise, so it’s not as if a more forceful denunciation from Ryan is going to turn fence-sitting voters against the candidate. He can hardly be unaware that leading politicians elsewhere have come out strongly against Trump only to see him win in their states in defiance of their recommendations. Ryan appears to be savvy enough not to try to dictate to Wisconsin voters what they should do ahead of their primary, and that way he avoids the embarrassment of being ignored and/or repudiated by the voters back home. While that isn’t a profile in courage, it’s also consistent with Ryan’s well-known record of not rocking the boat.
It’s also possible that Ryan doesn’t see “a potentially-existential threat to his vision of conservatism” because the Trump threat has been exaggerated by many anti-Trump Republicans for effect. If Ryan doesn’t believe that “conservatism as we’ve known it” is at risk of being destroyed or irrevocably changed, he isn’t going to be as alarmed as Douthat thinks he should be. In other words, if the #NeverTrump crowd is wrong about what a Trump nomination means for conservatism, Ryan’s reaction may make a lot more sense than theirs.
I can understand why anti-Trump Republicans would be annoyed with what Ryan said in his interview last week. Not only did he fail to go after Trump as aggressively as they would like, but he aso bluntly rejected the idea that the preferences of primary voters should be overridden at the convention:
No, because I have to respect the primary voter. I have to respect the citizens — of this country, and the member of the Republican Party who goes to the polls in Wisconsin, Ohio or wherever — to select the nominee. I have to respect that process. We don’t have brokered anything. It’s the primary voter who chooses it [bold mine-DL].
That doesn’t sound like someone who’s interested in plotting how to deprive Trump of the nomination no matter the cost, and that’s what has landed Ryan in trouble with his die-hard opponents.