The GOP primary season is over. Now the struggle for the soul of the party begins.
That may be the bottom line of House Speaker Paul Ryan’s extraordinary disavowal of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. On Thursday, Speaker Ryan said he was “not ready” to support Mr. Trump in the general election.
Republicans want “a standard-bearer that bears our standards,” said Ryan in an interview with CNN, citing belief in limited government, restraint on executive power, and adherence to the Constitution as examples.
Trump responded pointedly but with an uncharacteristic lack of personal jibes, saying in a statement that he was “not ready to support Speaker Ryan’s agenda.”
At issue is the fact that some of Trump’s policy positions, unchanged, would blow up decades of Republican Party consensus.
Trump has harshly criticized free trade agreements, for instance. The GOP has long been the party most eager to lower international trade barriers. Trump has defended Social Security and other government entitlement programs against any reductions in benefits. Ryan has led the charge for reform in entitlements, saying they are unaffordable as structured. On foreign policy, Trump has sounded much less interventionist than past Republican administrations.
While many GOP leaders are coming to terms with a party nominee who represents substantial policy change, others are not. Both Presidents Bush have said they’re giving the Republican National Convention a miss. Ryan’s old running mate Mitt Romney is, too – that’s probably for the best, considering how he served as a point man for the #NeverTrump movement.
Ryan himself has been hedging his position for some time. He’s talked about rolling out a personal policy agenda prior to the GOP convention, for instance. He’s denied any interest in serving as a white knight for #NeverTrump forces but remained coy about his plans for 2020 if Trump loses.
In other words, he didn’t run for president this time but he appears to be campaigning hard for the slot of “Mr. Republican,” the face of the party as it has been since it coalesced around a platform of tax cuts and muscular foreign affairs.
Ryan’s problem is that many Republican voters approve of the direction Trump’s taking the party.
Take Trump’s proposed temporary ban on non-citizen Muslims entering the United States. Ryan’s hit that hard as contrary to American values. As a protégé of the late Rep. Jack Kemp, Bob Dole’s 1996 running mate and a strong advocate of an inclusive party, Ryan has long urged the party to reach out to religious and ethnic minorities and criticized what he terms “identity politics."
But Trump’s Muslim ban is popular with GOP voters, points out right-leaning columnist Byron York Friday in the Washington Examiner. Exit polls showed that 69 percent of Republicans in Pennsylvania approved of the proposal, for instance. In New York it was 68 percent, and in Florida 64 percent.
“That’s about 2/3 support among Republican primary voters across the country for a proposal Ryan called ‘not what this party stands for, and more importantly ... not what this country stands for,' ” writes Mr. York.
The outcome of this struggle over what it means to be a Republican will depend heavily on the progress of Trump’s presidential campaign.
In the short run, Ryan’s reluctance gives other elected Republicans cover to demur and say they’re waiting to see how Trump’s policies develop. If Trump runs strongly and appears a serious threat to likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton – and tones down his rhetoric – Ryan and his followers will likely find reasons to come around and support their party’s nominee in November.
If Trump looks like he’s headed for disaster, and his campaign continues to consist of tweets about taco bowls and loving Hispanics, Ryan might stay aloof to make it easier for him to rally the faithful on Election Day +1.