House Speaker Paul Ryan is reportedly still trying to decide whether to endorse the presumptive Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump. Asked this week at a news conference whether he was ready to back Trump, he would say only “I have not made a decision.” While pressure is growing for Ryan to jump on the GOP bandwagon starting to form behind Trump, the answer should be obvious: No.
The speaker, to be sure, is in a difficult position, caught between the preferences of GOP primary voters and his own long-standing policy positions, few of which are embraced by Trump. Pick the former and he abandons his own policy principles; pick the latter and he risks abandoning his party. But the answer should still be readily apparent. Embrace Trump, and he will lose both his principles and his party. If he rejects Trump, he still has a chance to win on both.
Consider some of the issues I know best, related to the competitiveness of the U.S. economy. On policies like immigration reform, trade liberalization, and entitlement spending, the positions that Ryan has staked out simply cannot be reconciled with those taken by Trump.
Ryan has long been a champion of immigration reform that would legalize most of the roughly 11 million unauthorized migrants currently living in the United States, and would open up new opportunities for highly-skilled immigrants and foreign-born entrepreneurs. Trump is adamantly opposed to both. "When politicians talk about 'immigration reform', they mean: Amnesty, cheap labor, and open borders," his platform says. He wants to crack down on unauthorized migrants, tripling the number of agents to track down and deport those living illegally in the country. On skilled migration, he has opposed the H-1B program that is the primary entry point for these migrants, charging that these “are temporary foreign workers, imported from abroad, for the explicit purpose of substituting for American workers at lower pay.” And he has called for freezing or reducing current legal migration to the United States, arguing that immigrants are stealing American jobs.
On trade, Ryan has been one of the biggest champions in Congress of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and other efforts to liberalize trade. On the crucial vote last June that gave the Obama administration the “trade promotion authority” (TPA) it needed to close the deal, Ryan spent many hours personally lobbying fellow Republicans to support TPA, and was largely responsible for the bill’s successful passage. Donald Trump is not only vociferously opposed to the TPP, calling it "a horrible deal," he has threatened to slap huge import duties on Chinese goods to gain negotiating leverage against China, which would be a massive violation of existing trade rules.
On entitlement spending, which has been Ryan’s signature issue, he has called for cuts to spending on both Medicare and Social Security, in an effort to reverse trends that will see the federal budget deficit grow to record levels with the growing retirement of baby boomers and the shrinking of the labor force. "The failure of politicians in Washington to be honest about Medicare and Social Security is putting the health and retirement security of all Americans at risk," he says. Trump, in contrast, has promised to leave Social Security and Medicare untouched, even as he is calling for huge tax reductions. Ryan’s budget plan calls for bringing the federal budget into balance in a decade; Trump’s would add some $10 trillion to the deficit.
If Ryan genuinely cares about his policy ideas – which by all appearances he does – then his calculation is this. Which outcome best allows me to pursue this agenda? The answer is pretty clear: hold on to the House Republican majority (and the Senate if possible), and quietly hope for a Hillary Clinton presidency.
On immigration reform, Ryan and Clinton are largely on the same page – the challenge will be convincing their fellow Republicans and Democrats. On trade, while Clinton has come out against the TPP, her stance seems a tactical one to shore up Democratic Party support. As Obama’s Secretary of State, she called the TPP “the gold standard in trade agreements.” While both Clinton and Ryan have some problems with the TPP agreement as it currently stands, it is likely they could come together and find a way to support the deal. On entitlements, the gaps are clearly bigger, with Ryan favoring deep spending cuts and Clinton calling for a modest expansion of Social Security paid for with higher taxes. But even here, a Ryan-Clinton partnership would stand at least some chance of reaching the sort of “grand bargain” agreement to raise some taxes and cut some entitlement spending that eluded President Obama and former Speaker John Boehner.
With Trump as president, none of these bargains would be possible. There is simply too little middle ground between Ryan and Trump. The Republican policy agenda would be set by the new president, and it would not be Ryan’s agenda.
But, political tacticians will retort, if he fails to endorse Trump, doesn’t Ryan risk being repudiated by his own party and losing the speakership? The answer is that he almost certainly does not. Ryan only took the speaker’s job reluctantly after House Republicans failed to coalesce around any other candidate. He is the only figure in the House who can command enough respect from the various wings of the GOP to hold on to the job. However much the Trump wing of the party might object, there is no likelihood that they could bring a majority of the House GOP caucus behind a pro-Trump alternative.
If Trump wins the presidency without Ryan’s support, the Speaker would certainly be in an awkward position, but at least he would be negotiating from a position of strength, and could argue with credibility that his ideas deserve the same standing in the party as Trump’s. If he capitulates to Trump, there is no question which of them would then be leading the party.
More importantly in the short run, Ryan’s rejection of Trump would embolden other wavering Republicans who fear not only that Trump would be damaging for the country, but that he would be a disaster for his party as well. By taking a principled stand, Ryan would then be the obvious leader to pick up the pieces if Trump does indeed lead the party off a cliff.
These are tough decisions for any leader, to be sure, in what is certainly the most turbulent election any of us has witnessed for more than 40 years. But the right course for Paul Ryan is clear.