Tuesday, October 11, 2016

A Requiem for Paul Ryan

This seems like it might be an opinion that is unpopular with both liberals and conservatives, but I honestly feel really bad for Paul Ryan, and I don't think he's spineless at all.

Paul Ryan has been repeatedly called spineless for failing to openly oppose Trump.  I've heard many commentators -- Seth Meyers, Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee -- point out Ryan's own full-throated denouncements of Trump's behavior as evidence that Ryan clearly hates the candidate he purports to endorse.  They then charge Ryan with cowardice for not standing up to a candidate he knows is completely unqualified.

I get the logic here, but I see a different set of calculations behind Ryan's actions.  I think Paul Ryan has continued to endorse Donald Trump for two reasons:

1)  He sincerely believes that upholding party unity is a cardinal virtue.

2)  He isn't willing to sacrifice his career for a symbolic protest.

Now, there's certainly plenty of room for dispute.  It's possible that he's just a spineless shill, or a short-sighted opportunist.  But I don't think that his actions bear these out at all.

As evidence, compare Ryan to his peers.

Mitch McConnell really is a coward.  He is an opportunistic wimp that hasn't managed to use his time leading a Republican majority to successfully advance any specific conservative agenda other than knee-capping the other two branches of government.  He spent all of Obama's presidency so focused on not getting on the wrong side of voters that he failed to actually ever champion anything.  He's refused to fill a vacancy on the court for no sensible reason other than to hopefully bump up Republican turnout in an election.  After decades in politics, he really is the stereotypical used dishrag of a politician.  He'll say anything not to be noticed.  Do you know when he endorsed Trump?  Of course not, because unlike Paul Ryan he's been invisible this whole election

Ted Cruz, unlike McConnell, is not completely dumb and actually has passion for what he does.  But what he does is ruthlessly pursue power by saying absolutely anything that he thinks will benefit his career.  He led a government shutdown that made him famous and loved among the conservative fringe at the expense of the rest of his party.  During the primaries he shifted moment-to-moment in any way that would keep him from being the next one voted off the island.  Over the last two years, he's been Trump's ally and adversary so many times that his only consistent position is that he's a snake.

Which brings us to Ryan.  When Trump became the presumptive nominee, Ryan was one of the last Republicans to endorse.  While everyone else was jumping onto the bandwagon once it became clear that Trump couldn't be stopped, Ryan drew repeated negative attention by acting as the unpopular Jiminy Cricket of true conservatives.  Chris Chistie was the first mainstream politician to endorse Trump.  As soon as Christie concluded that he couldn't be president, he began running for Attorney General by pretending that he'd never called Trump a thin skinned carnival barker.  Notice that Ryan never once pretended to feel for Trump something he didn't.  He never retracted his criticism of Trump, he just declared that he respected the will of his party's voters.  Which I think is true.  Ryan looks like a kid who had a Reagan poster over his bed (he still looks like that kid).  Reagan was the figurehead for the days when politics were a team sport, and I think Ryan is honestly trying to model the behavior he wishes the rest of America still admired.  Commentators are right to note that Ryan knows full well that Trump is a monster.  But he's gone further than anyone who's actually got something to lose to speak his conscience.  The only further step he could take -- unendorsing -- means sacrificing any theoretical cooperation from the mouth-breathing zealots he's trying to keep from destroying America.

Lastly, there is just the context.  Paul Ryan has never struck me as the worst of conservatives.  Granted, his fiscal politics are about as far from mine as possible.  But he's never seemed desperate to pander to evangelical voters.  He's never seemed to lead the partisan brain washing of his colleagues.  He's always been pretty upfront about the fact that he's there to try and slash spending and taxes.  He assumed his gavel reluctantly after the rabies infection in his party claimed the political life of John Boehner.  While the idiots in his party like Peter King were throwing all good advice to the wind pushing through a bill to undermine international order, Paul Ryan tried to resist JASTA as best as possible without getting devoured by the rest of his party.

In the end, all his efforts probably will be for nothing. To liberals, he's viewed as culpable for all the madness he fails to stop.  To his own party, he's hated for any act of sense the same way they wound up hating Boehner.  Trump is more popular than he is.  Now he's gone so far as to declare that he will no longer defend Trump's actions, but he has refused to unendorse him.  Trump is tweeting attacks at him and everyone against Trump is laughing at him.  Contrary to McConnell, Cruz, Christie, and everyone who's trying to find a safe place to hide, Ryan is taking the one position that ticks off everyone.

He's willing to pass immigration reform.  He's willing to close tax loopholes.  As two policy wonks who secretly disregard half their parties' platforms, he and Hillary could find enough common ground to probably work well together, if his party would let him.  Right now it looks like he's trying to actually lead congress in a productive direction and still hold onto his seat.  Unfortunately, in the long run, he'll probably fail to do either.

Edit:  After I published this, FiveThirtyEight discussed this topic in considerable depth:  "Is This What it Looks Like When a Party Falls Apart?"

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