In the land of the pusillanimous, the ambivalent speaker is king.
So House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is being heaped with praise for saying, on the matter of supporting his party’s presumptive presidential nominee, that he is “just not ready to do that at this point,” “not there right now” and “not there yet.”
Ryan’s comments, to CNN’s Jake Tapper, represented “an extraordinary rebuke” of Donald Trump, in the phrasing of The Washington Post and the New York Times. So it was. “Wish more @GOP leaders had his courage,” John Kasich’s chief strategist, John Weaver, tweeted of Ryan.
Watching these supposed leaders, I agree. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), up for reelection, attempted an unconvincing distinction between supporting Trump (she will) and endorsing him (she won’t). Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), in what he has said “may be the race of my life,” said he planned to “support the nominee of the party,” despite what he said were “significant disagreements that I have with Mr. Trump.”
So kudos to Ryan for not falling in this disappointing line. But might I also suggest that we are defining courage down here?
Trump has said enough — more, more than enough — for the proper, principled Republican response to him to be “never Trump,” rather than “not yet Trump.” His comments about Muslims and his proposal to bar them — temporarily, as if that makes his position somehow more palatable — from entering the United States. His false claims that thousands of American Muslims celebrated the 9/11 attacks. His reference to Mexican “rapists” entering the country illegally and his plan to round up and deport 11 million undocumented immigrants. His mocking of a New York Times reporter with a disability; his misogynistic comments about Carly Fiorina, Megyn Kelly et al.
These are not positions and statements that can, or should, be airbrushed away, excused or forgotten. They are, or should be, disqualifying. Yet that is not Ryan’s assessment. “I hope to support our nominee,” he told Tapper. “I hope to support his candidacy fully.”
In Ryan’s view, Trump simply needs to moderate his tone going forward, to bring the party together and to reassure Republicans like Ryan that he is a true conservative. “The question is, can our presumptive nominee turn things around, unify and have a different kind of cadence going forward?” Ryan said. “It’s time to go to from tapping anger to channeling that anger into solutions. It’s time to set aside bullying, to set aside belittlement.”
Actually, that time was months ago, when Trump first launched his divisive, ugly candidacy. Ryan’s courage is relative to the predictable but disappointing baseline of his peers. The speaker finds himself in a difficult position, but his expressed hope to ultimately be able to support Trump is an exercise in self-delusion.