Did Paul Ryan make the worst mistake of his very long political career when he endorsed Donald Trump? Certainly so, if we are to believe the #NeverTrump fabulists who argue that any association with the xenophobic hatemonger who has captured the fancy of Republican voters is the stuff that dooms ambitious Republicans.
But, of course, the #NeverTrump commentators and hangers on were delusional enough to convince themselves that Ted Cruz was a credible presidential contender. And that Ryan might actually put principles ahead of party loyalty.
The better assessment is to suggest that Ryan has taken a risk. He is endorsing a presidential candidate who he is savvy enough to recognize as a threat to his party and his country. But Ryan is also endorsing his own ambitions.
If he is to have a future in a Republican Party that disdains disloyalty and frequently punishes its dissenters, Ryan has to be on the Trump train. Indeed, he must serve as something of a conductor: chairing the Republican National Convention in Cleveland and making cases (however convoluted) for why Republicans should have confidence in a huckster candidate — as Ryan did last week with the absurd apologia that announced his decision to endorse the party’s new standard-bearer.
Ryan is acquiescing to Trump and Trumpism, and he is shedding at least some of his dignity in doing so.
But do not imagine that Ryan does not know what he is doing, or that he does not have a plan.
Ryan always has a plan. And it usually works for him.
Over the past decade, he has connived his way into the chairmanship of the House Budget Committee, the chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee, the House speakership and the 2012 Republican nomination for vice president. He is a master manipulator who gets what he wants while convincing everyone else that he is doing what others want or need him to do.
This is how he has played the whole process of endorsing Trump. And it may work out for Ryan, a wily political player (perhaps as wily as Trump) who knows how to create an impression that serves his interest — putting the best face on even his worst compromises.
The Republican congressman from Janesville is the ultimate Washington insider, a political careerist who was entrenched on Capitol Hill when Barack Obama was just getting started as an Illinois legislator. Yet a gullible media and an even more gullible Republican base still treat him as something of a fresh face — the bright young face of a dark old party.
At critical junctures for America, Ryan has always chosen the interests of Wall Street over Main Street. He has voted for bank bailouts and budget cuts and trade deals that have devastated the district he is supposed to serve, invariably placing the priorities of corporate donors ahead of those of his constituents; yet he has successfully fostered the fantasy that he is his own man and that he has at least some measure of concern for southeast Wisconsin.
Now he is fostering the fantasy that he is a dutiful Republican who is ready to do what is necessary to preserve the party.
He is not the first Republican to play this game.
In 1964, the Republican base imposed a nominee on the party establishment who in many senses scared mainstream Republicans as much as Trump now scares party elites. Barry Goldwater was a better man than Trump on many levels, but his positions were often extreme and his rhetoric was reckless. Many top Republicans distanced themselves from Goldwater, announcing that they would not support him (as New York’s John Lindsay did, inspiring the New York Times headline: “Lindsay rejects national ticket”) or pointedly avoiding campaign appearances with the party nominee (as Michigan Gov. George Romney did, after predicting that Goldwater’s candidacy would lead to the "suicidal destruction of the Republican Party").
Plenty of top Republicans took principled stands that year. But not all of them. Former Vice President Richard Nixon, the party’s 1960 presidential nominee, knew that Goldwater was a disaster in the making. But Nixon hit the campaign trail for the GOP ticket, traveling to every corner of the country on behalf of Goldwater and, more importantly, on behalf of candidates for governor, for the U.S. Senate and especially for the U.S. House. While Goldwater’s candidacy crumbled, Nixon was there as the responsible face of the party: steady, determined and at the side of Republicans who knew they were in trouble.
Goldwater did crash and burn, losing 44 states and the District of Columbia to Lyndon Johnson and taking many Republicans down to defeat with him. Nixon rallied the survivors with a promise to help rebuild the battered party. And he consoled the losers, urging them to run again the next time around.
Four years later, the party was still divided. But there was a measure of unity with regard to Nixon, who Republicans of all ideologies and tendencies saw as the party man who had stood with them when things got rough and then led the process of renewal. Nixon was never beloved, but he could be relied upon. That was enough to secure the GOP nomination and the presidency in the volatile election of 1968.
The calculus was risky. But it paid off in the long run.
Ryan’s calculus is risky as well. But he's a betting man, as his pattern of leaping toward ever more powerful positions has proven. Presumably, Ryan is betting now that taking a risk on Donald Trump will pay off for him, as taking a risk on Barry Goldwater paid off for Nixon.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising
Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to email@example.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.