Paul Ryan: Donald Trump's Best Friend
Paul Ryan may not favor Trump, but could not be doing more to help him.
Ryan has now been in office long enough to take a number of actions that allow us to judge whether he can be the effective strategist that John Boehner never was. Let's first remember that the most important political problem he faces is the contempt in which most of his party's voters hold its leaders and Washington office holders. The most visible symptom of that contempt is Donald Trump's strength in the polls. Ryan's main job is to convince the party's voters that they should trust the party again in spite of its recent history of torpor, because their turning in disgust to Trump may lead to electoral disaster: the latest NBC/WSJ poll has Trump losing even to Bernie Sanders by 15 points. It's fair to judge Ryan's actions first and foremost by their impact on this crucial point.
Take first of all the omnibus budget bill that Ryan negotiated. What was its political impact on the perilous situation within the GOP? It could scarcely have been worse. All the things that the party base really cared about were given away: no money for the border fence, Obama's illegal executive amnesty was funded, his Muslim refugee program funded, sanctuary cities funded, and so on. House Democrats were so delighted by the bill that 90% voted in favor, while only 60% of Republicans voted affirmatively, and many of them not because they liked the bill, but because they didn't want to humiliate a new leader.
If Ryan's aim had been to boost Trump's poll numbers still more, he could not have done more to achieve that end. Trump must have been thrilled. If his aim had been to tell his voters to take a hike, he could not have done so more effectively. If the GOP loses the White House, the Senate, and the House in 2016, this could well be the action that made those losses inevitable.
Worse yet, when Ryan explained what he thought he was doing, he revealed a mindset that promised an everlasting stream of similar problems for his party. He was plausible when he explained that he gave on some things to get concessions on others, but he became alarming as soon as he spoke of the gains he was so proud of. Ryan was excited at having secured the extension of some relatively circumscribed tax breaks – breaks applicable to particular business situations, not to the general public. In exchange for these, he had given away everything his party's voters cared deeply about. Some have called this a betrayal, but the truth is even worse. Ryan showed that he is a policy wonk and number-cruncher so focused on budgetary detail that he loses sight of the big picture. He is politically tone-deaf. It was as if the GOP's huge political problem did not exist.
His other recent actions all lead to that same conclusion. When Kevin McCarthy blew up his candidacy for the speakership with his astonishing gaffe concerning the Benghazi committee, it was immediately obvious to everyone that the party must look elsewhere. But not to Ryan, who wrote an op-ed enthusiastically promoting McCarthy's candidacy for speaker, blissfully unaware that the party base would have been in open rebellion had McCarthy been chosen – another politically brain-dead act on Ryan's part. McCarthy's promotion would of course have meant more gains for Trump.
Another instance was Ryan's public statement rejecting Trump's call for a pause in Muslim immigration after the San Bernardino killings. Politically, what was important here was that Trump was speaking to a widespread public anxiety about Islamic terrorism. A statement from GOP leaders could certainly question the practicality of Trump's solution, but it would also need to give voters a sense that the leadership recognized the seriousness of the problem and the need to deal with it. If they didn't, Trump would own a popular issue, and his poll numbers would soar yet again. Not surprisingly, Ryan did exactly that. He rejected Trump's suggestion on the grounds that it imposed a religious test and said prissily that "that's not who we are." But everyone knows that Islam is not just any religion – the concepts of jihad and sharia, so deeply embedded in Islamic history and practice, make very significant claims in the temporal world, and they make Islam much more than a religion.
When Ryan shows us that he doesn't understand that (while most of his party's voters do), he sends a clear message: you all may be worried sick, but don't expect me to do anything about it. Trump boosted yet again – instead of curing his party's main political headache, Ryan made it worse once more.
Ryan impresses everyone as a bright young man, but it is the brightness of someone who has never achieved political maturity and wisdom, and it is hard to imagine him ever developing into a statesman. For all his wonkish cleverness, he is horribly deficient in political judgment and instincts. The GOP badly needed a politically savvy replacement for the tactically and strategically inept Boehner, but sadly, Ryan is even worse than Boehner. Nor should this have surprised anyone: in 2012, Ryan proposed a radical privatization reform of Medicare in the middle of a crucial election year without giving any thought to whether his party was on board, or to the political dimension of injecting it into the campaign to deny re-election to Obama. He had thought up a bright idea and so publicized it, as if the timing and political context were an irrelevance.
From Trump's point of view, Ryan must be almost better than a pro-Trump super-PAC. A PAC only makes arguments, but Ryan's political bungling causes the despair of the GOP that drives people to Trump.
John M. Ellis is a professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz and chairman of the California Association of Scholars.