What Trump and Ryan Can Learn From Each Other
Something to talk about.
On Thursday, the Republican who is second in line for the presidency will meet with the all-but-certain Republican nominee for president. Aside from party and proximity to executive power, however, Paul Ryan and Donald Trump don’t have much in common.
So what will they talk about? What should they? On politics and policy, they remain far apart. The speaker of the House said last week he couldn’t endorse Trump “right now,” prompting Trump to retort that he is “not ready” to support Ryan’s agenda. After they sync their calendars, they might turn to a goal they claim to share: getting Washington to work again.
Washington’s dysfunction is beyond the ability of any two people to fix. But everyone can agree that U.S. politics would improve by being both less dogmatic and less divisive. If the Republican Party could combine Ryan’s inclusive rhetoric with Trump’s ideological flexibility -- and not the other way around -- then it might not only save itself but also serve a useful purpose.
“Ideological flexibility” is a euphemism, of course: Trump’s ideology, insofar as it exists, is entirely expedient. And his politics vacillate between the merely insulting (to his opponents) and the blatantly offensive (to immigrants, Muslims and women, among others).
Ryan, meanwhile, has political problems of his own, although of a different order. He wants to hold on to Republican majorities in the House and Senate, as well as protect the party as a vehicle for presidential ambitions, perhaps including his own. Trump’s candidacy jeopardizes both these objectives.
Then there is the political fragility of Ryan’s agenda. The conservative orthodoxy that Ryan embodies was dashed in the Republican primaries. Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio all offered versions of it -- and, as Trump will no doubt remind Ryan Thursday, all of them lost.
But if Ryan’s agenda is unpopular, Trump’s politics are unacceptable, or should be. A Republican Party that clings to both is doomed.
Losers of the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections, Republicans already have ample cause to reconsider their positions. The familiar conservative ideological tics of Ryan and his cohort -- the anti-cosmopolitanism, the attacks on well-liked New Deal and Great Society programs, and so forth -- have long lost their appeal outside the party. In 2016, they failed within it as well.
Unfortunately, their failure came at a price -- the all-but-official nomination of a reckless demagogue as the Republican presidential nominee. Trump has the right to expect the support of the party whose members chose him, and it can’t afford simply to dismiss what he represents or his nearly 11 million voters. At the same time, Republicans may find they need to quarantine the danger Trump poses to other party candidates.
In their meeting, and in this campaign, Ryan occupies the higher moral ground. Nevertheless, Trump might yet serve as a rickety bridge to carry Republicans to a new place -- a staging ground where they could shed a rigid orthodoxy that no longer serves them or the nation.
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