House Speaker Paul Ryan on Tuesday condemned Donald Trump's comments that the federal judge in the Trump University case should recuse himself because of his Mexican heritage and Hispanic ethnicity. As Ryan put it, "Claiming a person can't do their job because of their race is sorta like the textbook definition of a racist comment. I think that should be absolutely disavowed. It's absolutely unacceptable."
But Ryan had a caveat: "Do I believe that Hillary Clinton is the answer? No, I do not." He went on, suggesting he and Trump "have more common ground on the policy issues of the day, and we have more likelihood of getting our policies enacted with him than we do with her."
Let's be clear with what Ryan is saying here: A presidential candidate making blatantly racist remarks is regrettable, but tolerable as long as he supports massive tax cuts for the wealthy, reforming Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare, and changing welfare programs. Those are generally the focuses of Ryan's agenda, and the last item was the point of his press conference in the first place.
This is what economists sometimes call a "revealed preference." If you just asked an elected Republican whether he cared more about holding the line on racism or taxes, you might not get a real answer. But Trump is forcing those choices to actually be made, and tax cuts are winning.
Ryan did clarify that he doesn't believe Trump is racist but is rather repeatedly saying racist things. "I don't know what is in his heart," Ryan said, "and I don't think he feels that in his heart." (Remember: Trump has effectively quadruple-downed on his racist comments about the judge in the Trump University case, and even added religion as a potential reason for a judge to recuse himself. It's not just a one-off thing.)
It is, of course, entirely possible to support tax cuts, entitlement and welfare program reforms, and the rest of the conservative economic agenda without being blatantly racist or making blatantly racist comments. Ryan proves that, as do other Republican candidates who ran for president and lost, including Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich.
But in trying to achieve their agenda, Republicans are aligning with someone whom they are, at the same time, criticizing for "textbook" racism. It's a hard position for the conservative movement, but politicians should be clear about what they're saying.