Career politicians are frequently accused of talking out of both sides of their mouths. In order to avoid the blowback that might come from taking a side, the most calculating politicians try to say things that sound responsible—even bold—while leaving themselves wiggle room to do that which they know to be irresponsible.
Want an example? Check out House Speaker Paul Ryan’s dance with Donald Trump. Ryan says he is “not ready” to formally endorse Trump’s unpopular presidential candidacy. Trump says he is “not ready” to embrace Ryan’s unpopular austerity agenda. But after speaking with Ryan, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus says the speaker is prepared to “work through” these differences in order to “get there” on an endorsement of the billionaire. Blah. Blah. Blah.
Ryan is being portrayed in much of the media as an honorable Republican who is courageously refusing to board the Trump train. In reality, Ryan’s maneuvering has very little to do with honor and courage, and very much to do with ego and political positioning.
Trump may be the “presumptive nominee” of the Grand Old Party. But Ryan is not ready to let go of his status as the GOP’s “golden boy”—the still relatively young speaker of the House who has already done a turn as the party’s vice-presidential nominee and who might yet be a presidential prospect.
Trump has disrupted Ryan’s trajectory at the national level. And the billionaire’s also becoming something of a hometown frustration for the speaker.
Ryan is running this year for reelection to the US House seat that has always been his base of power. And he’s facing a lot more opposition than he is used to—inside his own Republican Party and beyond its boundaries.
The House Speaker’s Republican primary contest with a local businessman is highlighting the differences between the party’s grassroots base and an establishment that Ryan has come to represent: as a supporter of Wall Street bailouts, free-trade deals, and austerity schemes that invariably benefit his campaign donors, while hammering his constituents. Even as Ted Cruz was winning Wisconsin’s April primary, Ryan’s neighbors in economically hard-hit Rock County voted for Trump. (Wealthier sections of the southeastern Wisconsin district were friendlier to Cruz, tipping it to the Texan; but there is plenty of ferment in a district where the mention of Ryan’s name at a Trump rally in the congressman’s hometown of Janesville inspired robust booing.)