New York Times (Editorial)
May 13, 2016
On Thursday Paul Ryan, speaker of the House and Donald Trump’s highest-ranking Republican skeptic, sat down with Mr. Trump, the party’s presumed presidential nominee, to find “common ground.”
It took 45 minutes. “We will be having additional discussions, but remain confident there’s a great opportunity to unify our party and win this fall,” a joint statement said. Afterward, Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman, said the meeting was a “very positive step toward party unity,” and noted their “very good chemistry.” Though he did not endorse Mr. Trump, Mr. Ryan called him “a very warm and genuine person.” Mr. Trump spent part of their private meeting declaring his openness to Republican policies he’d disagreed with a day before.
For a time it seemed that Mr. Ryan might take a stand against Mr. Trump. Now it appears that he will wind up embracing a candidate who repudiates some Republican policies while also personifying many of the party’s most retrograde views.
Few should be surprised. For years, Republican politicians, focused solely on winning the next election, have issued coded appeals to nativists and racists in the base, while abandoning the party’s most desperate voters. In Congress, they have accommodated extremists determined to lay waste to basic federal government functions. John Boehner, the conservative speaker, was drummed out of office. Today Mr. Ryan, Mr. Boehner’s replacement, can’t get his budget, filled with draconian cuts, past Tea Partiers who condemn him as a free-spending sellout.
To the extent that Mr. Trump’s shifting stances are credible, he taps into what the white, working- and middle- class Republican voters who support him say they want. An “America First” isolationist, he opposes all trade deals, and favors punitive tariffs on foreign goods that if carried out would ignite a global trade war. He has responded to the Republicans’ failure to fix a broken immigration system with a vow to expel 11 million undocumented immigrants and force Mexico to pay for a border wall. Central to his foreign policy has been his call for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” On Wednesday, he said that was “just a suggestion.”
Mr. Trump says he will not touch Medicare or Social Security. He has suggested he would raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans and then backtracked, and flirts with raising the minimum wage. All of these positions run contrary to Mr. Ryan’s budget proposals, which rest on privatizing Medicare and Social Security, and also to Republican antipathy to social spending and minimum wage increases.
Mr. Trump represents “an existential struggle for control of the Republican Party,” says Norm Ornstein, a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, who forecast Mr. Trump’s rise. Both in Congress and among the electorate, the party is riven by ideological struggles, not least between the populist Trumpers and the conservative leadership represented by Mr. Ryan, whose calcified ideological agenda they reject.
In a different place, in a different time, this could be a moment of reckoning and constructive action. Mr. Ryan could follow up on his earlier refusal to endorse Mr. Trump with a firm stand against Republican voices of intolerance and obstruction, including those within Congress. He could press Congress to pass necessary legislation addressing the spread of the Zika virus and the water crisis in Flint, Mich. He could promise worried Americans that should Mr. Trump win, he would re-establish Congress as a check on the executive branch, not a rubber stamp on an irresponsible White House.
But if past is predictor, Mr. Ryan and Republican leaders will rationalize their way toward Mr. Trump, because they are desperate to win the White House. And in doing that, they will fail to address the split in the party that Mr. Trump’s success represents.
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