Paul Ryan is demonstrably brilliant at suckering credulous journalists into testifying to his own brilliance, but he's not much of a poker player.
That's the lesson of yesterday's back and forth in which Ryan said he's "not ready" to support Donald Trump's election because Trump hasn't yet proven his conservative bona fides to Ryan's satisfaction, and Trump fired back that he's "not ready to support Speaker Ryan's agenda," proving that two can play at this game.
Ryan is trying to execute a power play on Trump, but he has no leverage. He's bluffing — ineptly — with his cards turned backward so everyone can see he doesn't have a good hand. Like many anti-Trump moves by mainstream Republicans, Ryan's idea could have been effective if he'd rolled it out a couple of months ago, but it's too late now.
Paul Ryan needs conservatives to vote in November
The most fundamental problem for Ryan is that he and his colleagues in the House of Representatives need the conservative voters who gave them a majority in 2012 to show up and vote. Turnout falls for both sides during midterms, but it falls more for liberals, which gave the GOP a big edge in 2010 and 2014. But even in 2012, when turnout was high, the GOP held a majority thanks to a mix of incumbency advantages and favorable district boundaries.
Democrats will vote in 2016, and Ryan needs Republicans to vote also. Even if some of them end up voting for Hillary Clinton in the end, that's okay. He just can't have them stay home.
That means, realistically, at the end of the day the House GOP's electoral machinery is going to have to work together with the Republican National Committee and the Trump campaign on turnout and election logistics. For Ryan to refuse to cooperate would be just dooming his own majority.
Paul Ryan has more to lose
Another fundamental advantage Trump has in this standoff is that the stakes are much higher for Ryan than they are for Trump.
Trump might win in November, but he will probably lose regardless of what Ryan says or does. Ryan, by contrast, will probably hold on to his House majority. Fighting between Trump and Ryan hurts both men's causes, but Trump's cause is already underwater and Ryan's isn't. Objectively, House Republicans have a lot to lose from a GOP meltdown and Trump doesn't.
Beyond that, while Trump would surely like to win the election, the outcome for him if he doesn't win isn't so bad. Before this cycle, he was a celebrity entertainer. In that industry, achieving adulation from 35 to 40 percent of the population is a huge win even if it's not enough to win the election. Even losing in a landslide could leave Trump way better off than he was two years ago.
Ryan, by contrast, is a politician. Winning elections is his job. If he tanks in November, that's a disaster.
Paul Ryan has less job security
Last, but by no means least, there's the manner of timing. There's nobody left running against Trump for the nomination. From today until Election Day he is the de facto leader of the Republican Party.
Ryan, by contrast, is speaker right now — but he could in theory lose that gig at any moment if he loses the support of his caucus. This makes dividing the party into a Trump faction and a Ryan faction fundamentally riskier for Ryan than it is for Trump.
GOP leaders are locked in with Trump
In one of Watchmen's best scenes, the deranged vigilante Rorschach finds himself in prison surrounded by violent felons who think they have a golden opportunity to take vengeance on a man who has many enemies in the criminal community.
Rorschach swiftly proves them to be mistaken on this score: He's a deranged vigilante who relishes the opportunity to get into fights with criminals. "I'm not locked in here with you," he says "you're locked in here with me."
Throughout his rise to domination over the Republican Party, leaders in Washington have indulged the fantasy that somehow if Trump won the nomination he would become more reliant on them than he was on the campaign trail.
The exact reverse is the case. Precisely because Trump isn't a professional politician and has no particular personal, emotional, or intellectual investment in larger Republican Party projects, it's not so bad for him if the whole thing goes down in flames. The party's institutional leaders and rank-and-file apparatchiks, by contrast, have a great deal of personal, emotional, and intellectual investment in the larger project. The costs of defecting from Team Trump are very high, most of them won't do it, and Trump knows it.