With Trump, Ryan Wins When It Looks Like He’s Losing

Can speaker extract concessions from GOP front-runner?

Speaker Paul Ryan signaled to Donald Trump that he's nobody's patsy. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Speaker Paul Ryan signaled to Donald Trump that he's nobody's patsy. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted May 12, 2016 at 5:00am

House Speaker Paul Ryan will fold.  

When Ryan said he wasn’t ready to endorse, Republican insiders told me it wasn’t a sustainable position. And they were right. He’ll give his support to Donald Trump. It doesn’t matter if it’s a full-throated endorsement or a meek acknowledgment that he’ll “vote for the Republican nominee.”  

Like the rest of the elected GOP establishment, the high-minded and aggressively civil Wisconsin congressman, has little choice but to accept the ruffian who ransacked the Republican Party.  

Ryan hinted at that himself Wednesday when he talked to reporters in the Capitol.  

“We need a real unification of our party,” he said.”I want to be a part of that unifying process.”  

Don’t expect Ryan to endorse Trump on Thursday, when the Donald meets the elected leaders of the House Republican Conference. But neither will Trump have to wait until the convention. Ryan has made his point, and the two men can agree to make common cause in defeating Hillary Clinton without agreeing on policy, style or tactics. In the end, Ryan won’t be much further from Trump than the rest of the GOP leadership.  

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What’s different about Ryan, though, is that he will win when it looks like he’s losing. He already has won.  

After other Republicans either got trucked by Trump or simply signaled their subservience without a fight, Ryan stared him down.  

When Sarah Palin said Ryan would get “Cantored” — taken out in a congressional primary by a no-name challenger like former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor — Trump quickly distanced himself from her. Take it as a sign of good judgment that, given a choice between the last two Republican vice presidential nominees, Trump chose not to defend the under-baked Alaskan.  

Trump also reversed himself on Ryan. First, he threatened to remove Ryan as co-chairman of the Republican convention. Surely, Ryan hoped that threat was a promise. He responded by saying he’d step aside willingly. And then Trump, understanding how bad it would look for him to replace the highest-ranking Republican in the land with anyone else, changed his mind.  

Despite or because of Ryan’s withheld support, Trump is starting to warm to him. In an interview with Bill O’Reilly this week, Trump called Ryan “a very good man” who “wants what’s good for the party.”  

[Related: Podcast: GOP’s Slow Embrace of Trump]
Ryan accomplished a few things here: He signaled to Trump, establishment Republicans and the general public that he’s nobody’s patsy or punching bag; he earned favor with his colleagues by giving them cover to take their own time on Trump; and he’s reminded everyone — including Trump — that he’s the guy who has actually united the party’s factions at the federal level.  

Trump now understands that Ryan has a real constituency and that messing with the House speaker would come at a price. He must also have concluded that the squeaky-clean Ryan is pretty impervious to the weapon Trump uses to destroy his foes: Character attack.
Ultimately, Ryan can’t impede the party’s nominee without doing serious damage to himself. The GOP voters who picked Trump wouldn’t stand for that, and they’d let their elected representatives — Ryan’s constituency in the House — know about it. It would also make him toxic if he chooses to run for president in either 2020 or 2024.  

The truth is neither man is powerful enough to knock the other out, and both would emerge from a fight bloodied and weakened.  

There’s never really been any question about whether Ryan would get behind Trump. Instead, the questions are how, when and at what cost, if any, to Trump.  

By swearing that he didn’t want to become speaker, Ryan extracted concessions from his colleagues before taking the job. If his delay means he can get Trump to sign onto policy positions or even promise to comport himself in ways that don’t hurt down-ballot GOP candidates, it would be a huge victory for Ryan.  

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It’s hard to imagine that Ryan — again, the highest-ranking Republican in the country — would skip the GOP convention that he is supposed to preside over. If he’s there, he’ll have to push for Trump’s election. And, given the national attention to the convention, he’ll have to do it with gusto or he’ll look petty.  

That leaves the matter of timing. The most comfortable fit for Ryan and other Republicans — long enough to show they’re not crazy about Trump but early enough to avoid antagonizing true Trump believers —is probably after the primary calendar is finished and before the convention.  

Whenever Ryan gives in, he’ll have done it with dignity, which is more than you can say for much of the rest of the Republican establishment. He’s the only Republican so far to clash with Trump and live to tell about it. More striking, he’s actually emerged better for it.  

Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is co-author of the New York Times-bestselling Clinton biography “HRC” and has covered Congress, the White House and elections over the past 15 years.

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