The long road to November continues and GOP party leaders are beginning to come to terms with Trump as the presumptive nominee. Unity talks have been underway for a possible reconciliation between Trump and Paul Ryan, yet an endorsement has not been forthcoming.
But endorsing, rather than rejecting Trump may be the best way of ensuring the survival of Ryan’s vision for the Republican party.
Throughout this election cycle, Trump’s candidacy has indulged in an angry, divisive rhetoric which is at odds with the civil, compassionate and positive conservatism Ryan is trying to cultivate. Ryan has done his best to distance the GOP from Trump’s more controversial outbursts, such as his statements regarding David Duke and banning Muslims. But this will prove to be an increasingly difficult task with Trump as the face of the GOP.
Whatever course of action Ryan takes next will be informed by his partisan loyalty to the Party of Lincoln, and an ideological commitment to a compassionate brand of conservatism which promotes economic opportunity and social inclusion. The Speaker of the House may have first come to prominence as the advocate of entitlement reform and budgetary restraint with his Path to Prosperity proposal, but fiscal conservatism is merely a means to an end for Ryan. The cause of fighting poverty is what really drives forward Ryan’s vision for his party.
As the Republican vice-presidential candidate in 2012, Ryan saw an opportunity to engage with working class voters outside the GOP base and offer conservative solutions to poverty. Unfortunately, Mitt Romney’s campaign would not allow Ryan to take up the cause of fighting poverty. It simply wasn’t their issue. Since Ryan became Speaker of the House, he has begun to work towards making it a Republican issue.
At the beginning of this year, Ryan moderated the Kemp Forum on Expanding Opportunity which included six presidential candidates and launched his new focus on tackling poverty. The event was sponsored by Opportunity Lives in what has become an ongoing collaboration. The Speaker of the House then used his interview at CPAC this year to put this collaboration into focus and to highlight how civil groups are producing effective solutions to poverty.
For Ryan the key to a successful and compassionate conservatism is civil society, the intermediary institutions which exist between the individual and the state. The frontline of the war on poverty are churches, families, and the other “little platoons” which Burke first spoke of, rather than the bureaucrats, quangos, and NGOs favored by progressives. If the government does intervene then it should be at the lowest level possible with a bare minimum of federal involvement.
Ryan has already started to frame his agenda within the wider narrative for this year’s congressional campaign through his #ConfidentAmerica initiative. Alongside Republican priorities such as national security and repealing Obamacare, there is a firm and clear commitment to tackling poverty and fostering opportunity. In many ways it is the message which the Republican party as a whole ought to be delivering to voters this November.
There appeared to be some hope for party renewal in the wake of the 2012 defeat when the Reformicons emerged to modernize the Republicans through a broad anti-poverty program. But they have been overtaken by events. Ever since Trump came crashing into the presidential race, this voice for a more compassionate and inclusive conservatism has been drowned out.
The populist nationalism of Trump has defined the narrative of this year’s election cycle and has been tremendously successful in drawing upon grassroots support. According to a recent NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll, 58% of Republican voters trust Trump more than Ryan to lead the party, whereas Ryan only garnered 39%. Sarah Palin has already threatened to help depose Ryan in the Wisconsin primary. Ryan simply is not in a position to withhold his endorsement of Trump, unless he wishes to prematurely terminate his Speakership.
If Ryan and other GOP leaders refuse to endorse Trump and run a third party candidate, then they will go the way of the Rockefeller Republicans and this November will be the party’s worst defeat in decades. Such a result would destroy any chance of Ryan’s vision taking root in the party. But if Ryan does endorse Trump then he would retain his position and influence as Speaker and live to fight another day. The Republican party will stand a much better chance of modernizing after November with conservatives like Ryan picking up the pieces or holding a potential Trump presidency to account instead of martyring themselves now.