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There’s no winning for Paul Ryan this election

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) speaks to the media during his weekly news conference on Capitol Hill, July 7, 2016, in Washington, DC.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) speaks to the media during his weekly news conference on Capitol Hill, July 7, 2016, in Washington, DC.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

It’s not hard to see why House Speaker Paul Ryan would be wary of Donald Trump. Ryan is a self-styled principled conservative. Trump, not so much.

During last night’s town hall with CNN, however, Ryan worked hard to minimize that tension. He was clear to paint the election as a "binary choice" between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, arguably doing a better job of making the conservative case against Clinton than the case for Trump.

"I don't think Hillary Clinton's going to support any of the things that you stand for, if you're a Republican," he told an audience member who asked how Ryan could support Trump in spite of his xenophobic comments.

"It is either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton," he told another attendee. "You don't get a third option. It's one or the other. And I know where I want to go."

Still, there were moments when even the diplomatic Ryan couldn’t help but acknowledge his well-documented misgivings about his party's presumptive nominee. When asked what qualities he would like to see in a potential Trump running mate, Ryan jumped at the chance to suggest that the ticket needed a tried-and-true conservative.

"I would like someone to assure conservatives that the conservative principles will be adhered to and maintained, throughout not just the campaign but throughout his presidency," he said.

That sentiment underscored the fact that he has been facing a nearly impossible choice regarding Trump from the beginning. Ryan has long been hesitant to endorse Trump wholeheartedly. But ultimately, he has nowhere else to go.

For Ryan, Trump is the best of two pretty bad options

At first glance, it would seem Ryan would have a hard time finding common ground with Trump, who has repeatedly balked at some of the Republican Party’s defining issues — welfare reform, deficit cutting, and free trade.

Still, despite all their differences, Ryan has good reason to believe that his brand of fiscal conservatism would fare relatively better under a Trump presidency than a Clinton one. Trump has increasingly signaled that he might be amendable to a few of Ryan’s most dearly held issues: tax code reform and replacing Obamacare.

"We clearly have a presumptive nominee who wants to work with us on moving this agenda forward," Ryan assured House Republicans after their meeting with Trump last week.

Ryan is unlikely to get that same reaction from a Clinton administration, and he knows it. He said as much in a Politico interview on Monday: "I think she is a liberal progressive. And I think she’s sitting atop a party that’s now run by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren." He continued, "Our party has moved right, their party has moved really left."

With the GOP convention right around the corner and the Republican platform committee set to iron out its platform this week, Ryan is coming against his first opportunity to exert some control over a potential Trump administration. As Vox’s Jeff Stein has argued, party platforms tend to be a pretty good indicator of the way parties will operate in the future. For that reason, Ryan has quite a bit riding on the outcome of this week’s meeting.

If Trump wins in the fall, he’ll likely come into office with a Republican-controlled Congress, and the party platform could play a crucial role in guiding the administration’s first policies.

But even a Trump victory in November could be an ominous sign for the GOP. At the very least, it would mean that the party’s constituency just isn’t as committed to its conservative goals as its leaders are.

For the establishment wing of the party, that’s a frightening prospect.