How Can Ryan Possibly Believe Trump Should Be President?

Republican House speaker Paul Ryan speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference National Harbor, Maryland, March 3
Republican House speaker Paul Ryan speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference National Harbor, Maryland, March 3 (Gage Skidmore)

Republican House speaker Paul Ryan made headlines on Monday when he said he could no longer defend Donald Trump, his party’s presidential nominee.

But it didn’t take long for commentators to point out that Ryan hadn’t withdrawn his endorsement. So we have the spectacle of the most powerful elected Republican in the country saying he can no longer “defend” his party’s nominee while still supporting the same person to become president of the United States.

Hypocritical? Of course. And for those of us who had high hopes for Ryan, it is profoundly disappointing as well. Read more

Ryan’s Excuse for Supporting Trump Is Embarrassing

Republican House speaker Paul Ryan meets with religious leaders in Washington DC, March 2
Republican House speaker Paul Ryan meets with religious leaders in Washington DC, March 2 (Bread for the World)

House speaker Paul Ryan announced on Thursday that he would after all vote for Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

Ryan, the most powerful elected Republican in the country, refused to endorse Trump last month, even after the businessman’s two remaining rivals had suspended their presidential bids.

He had also broken with precedent during the primaries to criticize Trump when the latter proposed to temporarily bar all Muslims from entering the United States. “[This] is not what this party stands for and more importantly it’s not what this country stands for,” Ryan said at the time.

Now he maintains that he has “more common ground than disagreement” with Trump.

Ryan writes in a local newspaper in his home state of Wisconsin that private conversations with Trump have convinced him that the New Yorker would support his legislative agenda as president.

Which, if he’s honest, either means Ryan has changed his mind on major issues or Trump told him something different in private than what he says in public. Read more

Ryan Has Long Way to Go to Restore Trust in Politics

Republican House speaker Paul Ryan reads a speech he is about to deliver at the Capitol in Washington DC, March 23
Republican House speaker Paul Ryan reads a speech he is about to deliver at the Capitol in Washington DC, March 23 (Facebook/Speaker Paul Ryan)

Paul Ryan has a long way to go if he wants to restore some civility and trust in American politics.

The Republican House leader implicitly criticized many in his own party this week for playing to voters’ fears and undermining their confidence in the institutions of government.

Ryan called for a more confident America, one in which “we question each other’s ideas vigorously, but we don’t question each other’s motives.”

“People with different ideas are not traitors,” he said. “They are not our enemies.”

You wouldn’t know it listening to some of the louder voices on the right.

Elephant in the room

Ryan, who was his party’s vice presidential candidate in 2012, didn’t call out Donald Trump by name, the man Republicans are about to nominate for president.

He didn’t have to. No one is appealing to people’s anxieties more than their aspirations than the Manhattan businessman. Nor is anyone playing identity politics as adroitly as he is.

But it’s not for lack of trying.

Institutions

Ryan bemoaned a political discourse that seems to have lost all sense of decorum and respect.

It “did not use to be this bad,” he said, “and it does not have to be this way.” Skepticism of government is healthy, “but when people distrust politics, they come to distrust institutions.”

Quite so. Which makes it important that a Republican should say this for it’s the Republican Party that has done — and is doing — more than anything to erode that trust.

In the last few weeks alone, Republicans in Congress have refused to even hold hearings on Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, and declined to invite the director of the Office of Management and Budget, Shaun Donovan, to give his customary testimony on the president’s spending plan.

Americans have come to expect this sort of obstructionism. Republicans have abandoned all norms and been playing constitutional hardball since Obama was elected in 2008.

Tearing down norms

Paul Waldman recently argued in The Week that Republicans’ extremism, “troubling though that may be,” is not the biggest problem in American politics. (Read our in-depth article from earlier this week on that topic.) No, says Waldman, it’s that Republicans decided some time ago that there are rules and there are norms and while rules need to be followed, norms can be torn down whenever they find that doing so advances their momentary political goals.

That’s how filibustering has become the new normal and why it now takes sixty votes in the Senate rather than a majority to get things done.

It’s why so many diplomatic, judicial and lower-agency vacancies aren’t being filled by a majority in Congress that refuses to give the president a “win”.

It’s why every budget now raises the risk of a government shutdown.

It’s how Republicans came to toy with defaulting on America’s debt.

There is no law against any of it. Only conventions, whose function, as Waldman puts it, “is to permit government to operate in something like an efficient fashion.”

Culture

When a political party treats governing like a joke, it’s perhaps no surprise, argues Waldman, that it winds up picking a joke of a candidate for president.

You push your voters to the least serious person, the one who “tells it like it is” — in other words, the one with the most contempt not just for the norms of politics but for the norms of civilized human behavior. That’s what Republicans have ended up with. And they pretend that they can’t understand how such a thing could have happened.

Eliot A. Cohen goes one further, arguing in The American Interest that it’s not just Trump or Republicans. “What we increasingly lack, and have lacked for some time, is a sense of the moral underpinning of republican (small r) government,” he writes.

Whatever happened to integrity? Cohen wonders. Or modesty? Or selflessness?

American culture, he laments, is today nastier, more nihilistic and far less inhibited than ever before. “It breeds alternating bouts of cynicism and hysteria and now it has given us Trump.”

Ryan’s speech is a start. But reversing such cultural and political forces which have been building up for years is going to take more than exhorting politicians to play nice.

Republicans Overpromised (And Some Know It)

Republican House speaker Paul Ryan gives a speech, December 17, 2015
Republican House speaker Paul Ryan gives a speech, December 17, 2015 (Facebook/Speaker Paul Ryan)

Joshua Green suggests at Bloomberg Politics that there may be a realignment going on inside the Republican Party. Mostly working-class voters are fed up with the broken promises of a Washington “establishment,” he argues, and rallying behind presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Donald Trump who each in their own way promise to radically shake up the system.

Cruz and Trump between them command the support of just one in two Republicans nationwide, according to the latest RealClearPolitics average of polls. Neither man is likely to win the presidential nomination, let alone the presidency.

In the end, more reasonable, middle-class voters will almost certainly decide the general election and probably the Republican nominating contest as well. They always have.

But their control is slipping.

Radicalized

Mainstream Republicans, as we argued last year, have themselves to blame. They are the ones who for years have nurtured an anti-establishment sentiment that is now turning on them.

Jonathan Bernstein has argued at Bloomberg View that since the days of Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon, Republican leaders have told voters to trust in easy solutions and believe that the normal frustrations of politics are the product of villains, collaborators and fellow travelers.

And, of course, they succeeded in convincing many Republican voters that any conservative politician who engages in the norms of democratic compromise is a traitor to the cause.

Such “traitors” have largely been purged from the House of Representatives. Green points out that almost 60 percent of the lower chamber’s Republicans were elected in 2010 or after.

They’ve radicalized their party in Congress and driven out its establishment-minded speaker, John Boehner.

By some measure, the Republican conference is more right-wing than it has ever been.

But Boehner’s successor, Paul Ryan, is starting to take a stand against the purists in his party and warning others not to make promises Republicans can’t keep.

Empty promises

The Washington Post reports that Ryan, a strong fiscal conservative from Wisconsin who was the Republicans’ vice presidential candidate in 2012, called on his members this week not to squabble over tactics.

“And don’t impugn people’s motives,” he said in a speech that could easily be read as a rebuke to Cruz, the purist faction’s favorite for the presidential nomination, who once compared fellow legislators to Nazi appeasers for refusing to shut down the federal government in a futile attempt to overturn President Barack Obama’s health reforms.

Ryan urged Republicans to be straight with voters. “We can’t promise that we can repeal Obamacare when a guy with the last name Obama is president,” he said. “All that does is set us up for failure and disappointment and recriminations.”

When voices in the conservative movement demand things that they know we can’t achieve with a Democrat in the White House, all that does is depress our base and in turn help Democrats stay in the White House.

Yet that is what many Republicans have been doing for years.

When reality sets in

Megan McArdle argues at Bloomberg View that many conservatives come to Washington with a certain fire in their bellies only to settle down into decade-long careers with something more like a night light.

Grand promises are scaled back to modest tax credits and budgets that grow government spending at .8 percent a year, instead of the 1.6 percent that Democrats demand.

What critics miss, though, she writes, is that such lawmakers have “not given in to the siren song of intimate policy briefings and Georgetown cocktail parties.” They have surrendered to something even more formidable, she says: reality.

McArdle sees two problems.

The first is that voters have too high expectations. They want Washington to grow the economy — “which no one in Washington actually knows how to do” — and cut taxes yet keep spending money on the programs they like.

Most lawmakers quickly find that such conflicting expectations are impossible to meet. But rather than go back to their constituents and say so, their answer — as McArdle puts it — is too often, “Yup, I’ll get right on that,” before finding innovative ways to ignore them.

The second is that no one ever gets 100 percent of what they want.

There are a lot of people in the country and most of them don’t care about what you want. To get money spent or unspent, taxes raised or lowered, you have to give those people something they do want. The result is an ugly mess with little resemblance to the original plan.

Again, it are Republican lawmakers who seem most reluctant to accept this, which — as Ryan said — only sets their supporters up for failure or disappointment in the end.

Clarion call

Will Republicans heed Ryan’s clarion call? Green wonders.

Will voters nominate Cruz or Trump, each of whom party insiders believe could suffer a loss that would rival Barry Goldwater’s landslide defeat in the 1964 election? Will the party break apart if they do? Or will [Marco] Rubio or some other establishment-friendly alternative manage to harness this anger and prevail? And what then?

Unless Republicans tone down their rhetoric and lower their voters’ expectations of what they can accomplish, the nomination of an “establishment” candidate for president can only confirm suspicions on the right that there is such a thing as a defeatist Republican cabal determined to keep true conservatives out of power.

Republicans must slay the monster they have themselves created. Or it will only grow bigger and uglier.

Republicans Push Back Against Trump’s Pessimism

Republican congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin watches his election as speaker of the House of Representatives on television in Washington DC, November 3, 2015
Republican congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin watches his election as speaker of the House of Representatives on television in Washington DC, November 3, 2015 (Facebook/Speaker Paul Ryan)

Listen to their presidential candidates and you may be forgiven for thinking America’s Republicans see only doom and gloom on the horizon. But there are party leaders with a more hopeful message.

At their most recent debate, broadcast from Charleston, South Carolina by the Fox Business Network, property tycoon Donald Trump, the frontrunner, declared, “Our country is being run by incompetent people.” Health care is a “horror show,” he said. “We have no borders.”

For months, he has said, “Nothing works in our country.”

Ted Cruz, the far-right Texas senator who seems on track to win the first nominating contest in Iowa next month, has spoken in even more apocalyptic terms.

Marco Rubio, another senator, appears to have abandoned the optimism of his earlier campaign. He now maintains that “there may be no turning back for America” if it doesn’t get the 2016 election “right”.

We’re on the verge of being the first generation of Americans that leave our children worse off than ourselves.

The Atlantic Sentinel has argued that such fearmongering may work in a Republican primary election where voters are disproportionately pessimistic after eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency.

Gallup has found that four out of five self-described social conservatives believe America is in moral decline. These are the kind of voters who are motivated to turn out.

Anxious voters

The electorate at large isn’t feeling too confident either. On the left, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders is speaking to the suspicion of many working Democrats that the economic deck is stacked against them. He is polling neck and neck with former secretary of state Hillary Clinton in the first voting states.

But the Republican candidates’ rhetoric of impending doom is something else.

This website believes that the defining issue of the election this year will be how to make life a little easier for those tens of millions of Americans who are neither poor nor rich but would be more comfortably off in any other Western country.

Republicans should be talking about solving the middle class’ problems, whether it is unaffordable higher education, a health care system that is similarly more expensive than it needs to be or the absence of real wage growth.

There are Republicans who recognize as much.

Rubio started his campaign by calling for policies that will revitalize the “American Dream,” including liberalizing education and overhauling a byzantine tax code that stifles business growth.

So did Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and brother of the last Republican president. He is also the only prominent candidate who seems willing to challenge Trump’s fantastical assertions of American decline.

Challenging Trump

South Carolina governor Nikki Haley took a stab at Trump’s declinism in her response to President Obama’s State of the Union address last week, warning that “during anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation,” she said.

The Hill reports that Haley was drafted to deliver the Republican response to Obama’s speech by the party’s leader in the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan.

He is emerging as a “counterweight” to Trump, the political news website writes.

Ryan — who was the Republican vice presidential candidate in 2012 — is formally neutral in the nominating contest. But it is hard not to read his motto, “Confident America,” as a rebuke to the negativity Trump stands for.

At a party retreat in Baltimore, Maryland last week, Ryan is reported to have said that Americans are “crying out for solutions” and “a positive vision that brings us all together.”

Opportunity, upward mobility and a government that is small but effective have been winning themes for Republicans for decades. Bush, Haley and Ryan seem to believe they still can be; Cruz, Rubio and Trump are appealing to a craving for the familiar and supporting policies that are inward-looking and less about growth than about protecting what Americans already have.

Whichever vision wins out could decide what type of a party the Republicans end up with.

Budget Deal Gives Short-Term Relief, No Long-Term Improvement

Democratic senator Patty Murray of Washington state delivers a press conference at the Capitol in Washington DC, February 16, 2012
Democratic senator Patty Murray of Washington state delivers a press conference at the Capitol in Washington DC, February 16, 2012 (Flickr/Senate Democrats)

Democratic and Republican Party negotiators announced that they had reached a budget deal on Tuesday. If their compromise agreement is accepted in both houses of Congress, it could end some of the uncertainty about government spending and taxes that has dampened growth in the world’s largest economy this year.

The chief negotiators, Democratic senator Patty Murray and Republican congressman Paul Ryan, both described the compromise as a step in the right direction during a news conference in Washington DC. “This bill reduces the deficit by $23 billion, it does not raise taxes and it cuts spending in a smarter way,” said Ryan who was his party’s vice presidential candidate in last year’s election.

Party leaders and President Barack Obama quickly signaled their support. “This agreement doesn’t include everything I’d like — and I know many Republicans feel the same way. That’s the nature of compromise,” the president said in a statement. “But it’s a good sign that Democrats and Republicans in Congress were able to come together and break the cycle of short sighted, crisis driven decisionmaking to get this done.”

The Murray-Ryan plan raises discretionary spending in the fiscal year 2014 from $967 billion to just over $1 trillion while shifting tens of billions of dollars worth of defense cuts that were planned in previous legislation. It would altogether cut $85 billion in spending, amounting to $23 billion in net deficit reduction.

Mandatory spending, which includes the big health and pension programs that risk becoming unaffordable, isn’t covered under the agreement even if it is budgeted to account for 64 percent of total spending next year.

The cost of entitlements, including the president’s besieged health reform plan, is expected to rise from 9.8 percent of gross domestic product this year to 13.6 percent in 2035. As early as 2025, federal tax revenues could be sufficient to cover only these mandatory spending commitments, even excluding unemployment compensation and leaving nothing for discretionary spending on defense, education and infrastructure.

Republicans have proposed to repeal the president’s health reforms and liberalize state medical care for seniors in order to reduce the rising costs of entitlements. Democrats reject both proposals. They are also unhappy that Tuesday’s compromise does not include an extension in unemployment benefits which are due to expire at the end of this year.

Health, Security Disputes Reveal Republican Divide

Republican governor Chris Christie of New Jersey addresses a press conference in Trenton, October 4, 2011
Republican governor Chris Christie of New Jersey addresses a press conference in Trenton, October 4, 2011 (Governor’s Office/Tim Larsen

Less than a year after Mitt Romney failed to win the American presidency for the Republican Party, the divide between the party’s centrist establishment and conservative purists has widened. But disputes over health care and national security policies do not necessarily break down along ideological lines. The one thing they have in common is that they pit Republicans who can win national elections against those who can’t.

Late last month, the combative Republican governor of New Jersey Chris Christie chastised Kentucky’s senator Rand Paul who had been highly critical of the National Security Agency’s surveillance of American citizens’ communications. Speaking at the Aspen Institute in Colorado, he characterized Rand’s libertarianism as a “very dangerous thought” and urged the legislator to “come to New Jersey and sit across from the widows and orphans” of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that inspired counterterrorism policies that libertarians believe infringe on privacy rights.

Rand responded by accusing the New Jersey leader of demanding pork-barrel spending from Washington when his state is actually a net contributor to the federal budget. Christie has also been successful in reducing his state’s deficit, cutting both spending and taxes and introducing school reforms that are popular on the right. Surveys suggest, however, that in spite of his nationwide appeal to both Democrats and Republicans, the party’s activist base mistrusts him, in part because Christie, whose state was devastated by “superstorm” Sandy last year, heralded President Barack Obama’s hurricane reconstruction efforts just before the presidential election.

A fiscal conservative, Christie nevertheless seems more in tune with his party’s hawkish national security wing and is agnostic about gay marriage. Rand, though a libertarian, opposes gay marriage as well as military adventurism abroad.

Like the Christie-Rand feud, an internal split over how best to derail President Obama’s signature health reform law can be seen as a battle between the party’s establishment and newcomers but the ideological division is actually less clear.

The effort to defund the law is spearheaded by “Tea Party” senators Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Mike Lee of Florida, Texas and Utah, respectively, who are willing to risk a complete shutdown of the federal government to prevent “Obamacare” from being implemented. Party leaders in both the House of Representatives and the Senate have said little about this strategy — which is bound to fail as Democrats in the Senate, where they have the majority, are highly unlikely to vote for repealing Obama’s defining legislative achievement — probably for fear of alienating conservative voters.

Mitt Romney, who doesn’t have to worry about upsetting voters anymore, did question the strategy in New Hampshire on Tuesday where he said the effort was driven by “emotion” rather than a rational assessment of what’s in the party’s best interests. “I’m afraid that in the final analysis, Obamacare would get its funding, our party would suffer in the next elections and the people of the nation would not be happy,” he said.

His vice presidential candidate in the last election, Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan, seemed to agree on CBS News’ Face the Nation talk show this weekend, although he chose his words more carefully. “Rather than sort of swinging for the fences and trying to take this entire law out with discretionary spending, I think there are more effective ways of achieving that goal,” he said, after pointing out that the bulk of “Obamacare” spending is mandatory. A government shutdown therefore, which affects only discretionary spending, wouldn’t sink the law altogether.

Ryan’s indisputable fiscal conservatism and strong opposition to the president’s health plan endeared him to Tea Party voters — which was one of the reasons Romney nominated him for the vice presidency. But he is also an experienced legislator, unlike Cruz, Lee and Rubio, who recognizes the pitfalls of putting ideology before party interests.

Ryan isn’t any less a conservative for refusing to sign up to a losing strategy. He voted for dozens of laws that would have defunded “Obamacare” — which all stranded in the Senate. Republicans will only ever undo the health law if they retake control of the upper chamber and preferably the presidency as well.

The real divide between the likes of Christie and Ryan on the one hand and Cruz, Lee, Rand and Rubio on the other isn’t so much one of ideology as one of realism. The former realize they have to win national elections to govern conservatively whereas the latter prioritize ideological purity over electoral success. Hardline Republican voters may sympathize with the latter but it doesn’t do them any good.

Except for major wins in the House of Representatives in 2010, Republicans have lost three out of the last four last elections. Someone like Christie could reverse that trend in 2016, even if the highly popular former secretary of state Hillary Clinton is the Democrats’ candidate. Cruz, Rand and Rubio, who are all rumored to have presidential aspirations of their own, won’t.