Why Ryan Isn’t Attacking Trump
Peter Suderman comments on Paul Ryan’s underwhelming speech on American politics:
The framing of the announcement raised expectations that Ryan, who has made several speeches indirectly criticizing Trumpish behavior but has also indicated that he would back the candidate if he became the party’s presidential nominee, might finally address Trump directly. Which, of course, would be a big deal given that Ryan is, in addition to being the Speaker of the House, arguably the institutional voice of the party right now, its chief spokesperson and visionary.
But Ryan did no such thing. He didn’t mention Trump by name at all, and he didn’t raise many of the biggest concerns people have about Trump and his campaign. Instead, he waxed nostalgic about his political mentor, Jack Kemp and issued a nonspecific call for greater civility in politics. Trump’s campaign loomed over the speech, but Ryan seemed determine not to take it on in any way—even indirectly. If anything, Ryan’s speech today offered even less in the way of resistance to Trump and his ideas than previous remarks.
In the end, Ryan gave a speech that was more of a Civics 101 lecture than a statement about contemporary political struggles. He fell back on many of his favorite cliches and themes, and urged the audience to focus on ideas instead of impugning the motives of opponents. He even included a mea culpa for having used clumsy and insulting rhetoric in the past. It was all mostly unobjectionable, but for the same reason it was also not very interesting. The speech would have been justifiably ignored all together if it hadn’t been the Speaker of the House delivering it. This was absolutely not the call to arms that Ross Douthat wants to see, but it is consistent with the position Ryan has taken so far.
Douthat marveled in a recent post that there haven’t been more prominent Republicans opposing Trump “forthrightly and absolutely,” but if we consider the different reactions to Trump from Ryan and Romney we can make some sense of why there are so few of them. Romney is a former failed nominee and his political career is for all intents and purposes finished. He has the luxury of denouncing Trump in the strongest terms without having to worry about how much support Trump now has in the party, and he can do so without worrying that his favorability among Republicans has dropped precipitously in the last year. Ryan is at the height of his career in the House now that he is Speaker, and he presumably has a long career ahead of him in Congress or Wisconsin state politics if he wants it, so gratuitously antagonizing up to half of the Republican primary electorate across the country may not seem like a terribly smart move.
On top of all that, Republican officeholders aren’t usually known for attacking the presumptive front-runner for their party’s presidential nomination. To expect them to start doing this because the front-runner happens to be Trump is to expect long-ingrained habits of deference to be cast aside very quickly. Suderman called Ryan “arguably the institutional voice of the party right now,” and I suspect that’s partly why Ryan may feel that he can’t go after his party’s likely nominee in the way that anti-Trump Republicans want him to. Because he is in a position of authority and responsibility, Ryan may think that it would be an abuse of that position to take sides publicly in the nomination contest. He might also reasonably conclude that working to destroy the Republican coalition by openly joining an anti-Trump effort would do more harm to the party in the long term than having Trump as the nominee for a few months. Anti-Trump Republicans want to scuttle the Republican ship to prevent Trump from taking it, and they wonder why Ryan doesn’t share their desire to sink it. I submit that it’s because he is in a leadership position, and he has judged that it is better for the party to suffer Trump briefly and recover than it is to destroy itself to keep it out of Trump’s hands.