Has Trump Ruined Paul Ryan's Own Hopes?

Has Trump Ruined Paul Ryan's Own Hopes?
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These are days of reckoning for House Speaker Paul Ryan. It isn’t much fun. He’s appearing Saturday with Donald Trump and tearing across the country to help House and Senate candidates -- 42 stops in 17 states -- but if Ryan wants to run for president one day he should be making plans now to step down as speaker next month.

A Hillary Clinton victory would complicate Ryan’s ability to run the House, let alone pass budgets she would sign into law. It would certainly compromise his ability to win his party’s presidential nomination in 2020. A Clinton win would present a ripe opportunity for the GOP to take the White House four years from now. It’s hard to imagine the White House remaining in Democratic hands for four terms, and Clinton -- who would turn 73 in 2020 -- could also decide one term is enough. Ryan would be well positioned four years from now, but only if he leaves Washington soon.

A Trump win wouldn’t make anything easier for Ryan. Congressional Republicans seem to believe Trump will be pliable, and will permit them to pass Ryan’s “Better Way” agenda, strengthening the power of the House and Senate and, they hope, GOP standing with voters. But no one can rule out the possibility that Trump would govern the way he campaigned -- firing and rehiring personnel in a chaotic management structure while only truly entrusting his children with any real authority. There’s also no guarantee that a President Trump would be any different than Candidate Trump -- that he’d indulge himself in outbursts and insults directed at anyone who criticizes or crosses him. For Ryan as speaker, the situation could quickly go from painful to untenable.

House Republicans overwhelmingly want Ryan to remain speaker. The company line is that he will choose the thankless grind and put his party over his political future, at least for now, and that he is eager to enact conservative reforms.

“He goes to where he can make the biggest difference even at the cost of his own personal prospects for the presidency down the line,” said one Republican who serves in leadership. If Clinton wins, this member said, “every deal he makes would make it harder to become the nominee because there will be critics. You have to able to draw a clear contrast. The longer he stays the less likely it becomes.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Ryan’s ascent has been remarkable not only because of his policy heft but also because of his sterling reputation as a listener, a team player and a man of principle. As the 2012 vice presidential nominee, Ryan would have traditionally been the next in line to run for the GOP nomination (after Mitt Romney had run twice), but instead he became speaker.

Ryan initially refused the job, then reluctantly accepted, because he knew he would face the same internal pressures that drove his predecessor, John Boehner, out of public life.  Ryan took the job to help his party, and because there was no one else. He has managed a firmer grasp on the House GOP conference, but now his position as the highest ranking Republican has backed him into endorsing a nominee he otherwise wouldn’t support.

While still the most popular Republican in the country, according to polls, Ryan has faced the inevitable criticism for his backing of Trump.  The news that Ryan would make his first campaign appearance with the nominee in Wisconsin Saturday prompted Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post, a frequent Trump critic, to tweet, “so sad and disappointing.” A recent BuzzFeed piece on Ryan’s travails ended with a blind quote from a senior Republican congressional staffer saying that “your heroes always let you down.”

It will be awkward at the Fall Fest in Elkhorn on Saturday, as it always is when Ryan appears with Trump or answers questions about him. And it was notable Thursday that Ryan’s friend former Wisconsin Rep. Tom Petri joined the list of former GOP House members who denounced Trump in a letter that urged “our fellow Republicans not to vote for this man whose disgraceful candidacy is indefensible,” and called Trump “manifestly unqualified to be president.”

Should Trump lose, Ryan’s friend Indiana Gov. Mike Pence may automatically emerge as the next frontrunner in the GOP. Yet the exit polling and data showing who turned out for and against the candidates will also prompt another assessment of the state of the Republican Party, which -- should it take an epic beating with nonwhite voters -- could mean the taint of Trump harms Pence’s future political prospects and strengthens Ryan’s standing.

If Ryan stays on as speaker in a Clinton administration, he should expect Trump to squawk from the sidelines, hoping to continue fueling populist rage toward the establishment. If he stays on in a Trump presidency he can be tainted by that as well.

Sounds like maybe Ryan should make a run for it.

A.B. Stoddard is associate editor of RealClearPolitics and a columnist.

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