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Asked about grim GOP race, Ryan talks policy, not candidates

House Speaker Paul Ryan smiles during a town hall at Gaston Hall at Georgetown University in Washington April 27. 

Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are awful excuses for presidential candidates who threaten to identify the Republican Party for decades to come as a force that is not merely reactionary but dramatically out of touch with America and its future.

What critics say about Trump is true. He really is, as South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham suggests, a peddler of policies that are “unnerving and pathetic.”

What critics say about Cruz is true. While it is difficult to confirm whether John Boehner is right when he describes the Texan as “Lucifer in the flesh,” few who have worked with Cruz would deny the former house speaker’s description of the champion of the #NeverTrump movement as a “miserable son of a b----.”

But for all the criticism that is steered in the direction of Trump and Cruz, it is important to understand that they are positioned as last-men-standing (along with the fast-fading John Kasich) in the race for the Republican nomination because of the absolute failure of party leaders to stand on principle against them.

And no one has failed more horribly than House Speaker Paul Ryan.

Ryan has consistently provided aid and comfort to the Trump and Cruz candidacies. He may chide them occasionally when they go horribly off the rails — as happened last fall when the blowhard billionaire and the Texan were busy hating on Muslims. But Ryan always finishes his sentences by announcing that he will back the party’s nominee.

With his statements and actions, Ryan communicates to the American people that he sees both Trump and Cruz as acceptable faces of the Republican Party.

Then, absurdly, Ryan tries to repair the damage by begging Americans who have become increasingly disenchanted with the GOP — which is now registering its lowest approval ratings in decades — to give it a chance. On the latest of such missions, the Janesville Republican appeared at Georgetown University to ask young voters to reconsider what polls suggest is overwhelming opposition to the Republicans.

"I am going to assume that the thought has not been occurring to most of you recently," Ryan said as he made his plea. Then he claimed: "The America you want is the America we want — open, diverse, dynamic."

The speaker will not get far peddling that fantasy.

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The Republican Party appears to be preparing to make itself the party of Trump. And those who want to stop Trump have urged voters to back Cruz, who as Boehner reminds us is a “miserable” alternative.

Ryan had a chance early in the process to take a clear position. He could have joined responsible Republicans such as Wisconsin Rep. Reid Ribble in declaring that he would not back Trump as the Republican nominee. He could have made it clear to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his allies that he opposed their delusional effort to position Cruz as the anti-Trump.

Instead, Ryan played the worst sort of insider politics. He tried to maintain his reputation as a reasonable Republican while doing nothing to stop unreasonable Republicans. His failure has made his party's crisis more severe. When young voters reject Republicans, Ryan has no one to blame but himself.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising

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Associate Editor of the Cap Times