Paul Ryan will meet on Thursday with Donald Trump, the presumptive nominee he’s “not ready” to support.
A lot of people expect Ryan to eventually cave under pressure from his party and back Trump. But I think there’s good reason to think that Ryan is likely to say “YOLO” and keep resisting, despite the risk that will mean to his own political career and his party’s electoral chances in November.
That’s because Ryan is a man with little left to lose.
Think for a moment about why Ryan reluctantly agreed to seek the speakership in the first place – and what that tells us about how he’d be likely to feel about Trump.
It’s long been clear that Ryan’s goal is to implement a major overhaul of federal fiscal policy. He wants to reshape Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid and greatly slow the rate of growth in spending on them. He also wants to sharply reduce tax rates.
Whether you think this agenda is good or bad is immaterial to this analysis. My point is only that Ryan cares genuinely about implementing it, and he has shaped his political career around doing so.
Ryan’s theory of how he would make such sweeping policy changes was that he would get legislation through Congress, and a like-minded Republican president would sign it. Or at least that was his theory as of a few months ago.
Now, Trump has ruined Ryan’s policy-change strategy. He’s overwhelmingly likely to lose the November election to Hillary Clinton. And even if he somehow won, he has expressed strong opposition to the sort of entitlement cuts Ryan wants. Because of this, Trump has little to offer Ryan in exchange for his support.
Plus, even after Trump loses, the party’s coalescence around him will do lasting damage to Ryan’s policy ambitions by showing that you can say you don’t want to cut entitlements and still lead the Republican party. That’s because ordinary Republican voters are not as into Ryan’s policy agenda as Republican operatives and donors are.
There is also the secondary issue that Ryan seems to care a lot about having Republicans present a sunny, inclusive message that argues that small government is good for everyone and creates opportunity. Ryan seems horrified by Trump’s rhetorical strategy because of what he thinks it means for the Republican brand and simply as a matter of decorum and taste.
Other Republicans have a lot to gain from surrendering to Trump. Chris Christie could become attorney general. Rick Perry probably hopes to be Trump’s running mate. If what you care about is proximity to power for power’s sake, then the calculus of a Trump endorsement is obvious.
But if – as I think is the case – Ryan’s real priority is policy, not power, then he has nothing to gain from backing Trump right now.
Maybe Ryan hopes the “not ready” strategy can get Trump to make an unlikely commitment to the Ryan policy agenda – that Trump would acquiesce to Ryan’s (very unpopular) agenda of entitlement cuts in exchange for party unity.
I think it’s more likely that Ryan went with “not ready” because he’s genuinely despondent and sees no good options available to himself. Without any idea of what to do, he’s simply stalling.
If Trump doesn’t find a way to give Ryan a carrot that makes him feel like he gets something out of an endorsement, then I don’t expect that unreadiness to change. This is because Trump does not have an effective stick with which to beat Ryan.
Even if he loses his speakership in a party civil war he incites, so what? He’s already lost the reason he wanted the speakership in the first place. He might as well make a last-ditch effort to retain control over the party’s agenda.