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How Paul Ryan could win the 2016 election — no matter who's president

House Speaker Paul Ryan Holds His Weekly News Conference Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

House Speaker Paul Ryan has the misfortune of chairing a Republican National Convention that is nominating a presidential candidate he does not like at all. He did a month-long song and dance of refusing to endorse Donald Trump back in May, and he called Trump’s criticisms of Judge Gonzalo Curiel "textbook racism."

At a recent CNN town hall, Ryan spoke about his dilemma fatalistically, like he was being forced to choose between being mauled to death by a bear and sawing off his own leg. "It is either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton," he said. "You don't get a third option. It's one or the other."

This is not, suffice it to say, someone who’s pumped about the presidential candidate for whom he’s throwing a giant party.

It’s easy to conclude this is just about the peculiarities of Trump, an unusually explicit white nationalist who is doing untold damage to the credibility of the Republican Party among Latino and black voters. There’s widespread sentiment in both parties that he is beyond the pale in a truly unprecedented way, explaining why even archly partisan Republicans like Ryan are so reluctant to back him enthusiastically.

But there’s another dimension here as well. Despite Ryan’s protestations at the CNN event that "I don't think Hillary Clinton's going to support any of the things that you stand for, if you're a Republican," the fact of the matter is there are a lot of areas where Clinton is going to support things Paul Ryan personally stands for. Indeed, you could make a decent argument that Ryan will get more deals done, though perhaps of a smaller scale, under a Hillary Clinton presidency.

The potential for a Clinton-Ryan government

Patrick Kennedy And Newt Gingrich Address Health Care Reform
Then-Sen. Clinton and another conservative (former) House speaker, in 2005.
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Ryan has repeatedly expressed doubt that he could work with Clinton on much of anything. "Our party has moved right, their party has moved really left," he explained to Politico. "I think the common ground, say that you had in the early '90s when I was here as a staffer is nothing like the common ground you have right now."

But Ryan knows very well this is too simplistic. Just think about a few of the bread-and-butter free market conservative issues on which he parts ways with Trump:

  • Trump has explicitly run on defending Social Security and Medicare. Ryan wants to privatize both of them.
  • Trump is the most protectionist major party nominee in decades. Ryan is a dyed-in-the-wool free trader.
  • Trump is, shall we say, not the biggest fan of immigration. Ryan has repeatedly expressed support for a path to citizenship, was a significant behind-the-scenes supporter of the 2013 immigration reform effort, and told CNN this week that large-scale immigration is an economic necessity, arguing, "I think we need to have an immigration system that is wired for what our economy needs."

All three of these areas are places where he’s much better positioned to get a deal done with Hillary Clinton than with Donald Trump.

Yes, Clinton says she wants to expand Social Security, but her economic team, largely inherited from President Obama, is going to be much more interested in a grand bargain on entitlements than Trump is. Just as Obama offered a cut to Social Security (a proposal known as chained CPI) as part of debt negotiations with Republicans, it’s easy to see Clinton putting a proposal like that on the table.

Democratic health wonks are also enthusiastic about efforts to control Medicare costs; lest we forget, Obamacare included substantial cuts to the program. Clinton will likely further efforts on Medicare that Trump wouldn’t touch.

Yes, Clinton is an avowed opponent of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but she was also involved in negotiating it, and it’s easy to imagine her tweaking it slightly upon taking office, declaring it fixed, and pushing it through under Ryan. It’s also much easier to imagine her pursuing the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a proposed trade deal with the European Union, than it is to imagine Trump aggressively working toward that agreement.

Finally, Clinton has been clear that comprehensive immigration reform is one of, if not the, central legislative goal of her administration. President Obama couldn’t get it done because House Speaker John Boehner refused to put the Senate-passed reform bill up for a vote in the House. Ryan, a much truer believer in immigration liberalization than Boehner, could conceivably call a vote on that kind of bill.

And then there’s a bunch of little stuff, like expanding the earned income tax credit for childless singles, that Clinton and Ryan agree on in principle and could quite easily come to a deal on pay-fors. Infrastructure spending isn’t a major goal of Ryan’s, but Clinton is much more eager than Obama to use a fake corporate tax reform gimmick to pretend to pay for it, something for which Ryan is also on board.

You could easily imagine Ryan and Clinton cutting major deals on immigration, entitlements, trade, EITC expansion, and infrastructure — which, put together, adds up to a pretty impressive shared agenda.

Why Ryan prefers Trump anyway

Vox / Alvin Chang

And yet Ryan also declared in an NPR interview this week, predating the Pence announcement, "I think Donald Trump will sign better legislation into law that gets our country on a better path than Hillary Clinton. That's the choice in front of us and that is why I'm supporting Donald Trump."

Ryan’s stand is understandable as an act of pure partisanship. But the claim that "Donald Trump will sign better legislation" is only intelligible if you assume a certain ranking for Ryan’s priorities. In particularly, it only makes sense if you assume that Ryan cares much, much more about passing giant tax cuts than about much of anything else.

From a fiscal point of view, Donald Trump's most significant proposal by far is his gigantic tax cut plan. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimates that Trump will increase the debt by $10.35 trillion over 10 years, with fully $9.3 trillion of that coming from his tax cuts (and that's before you take interest payments into account). In terms of magnitude, everything Trump proposes that isn’t the tax plan is a footnote.

And here’s the thing about his tax plan: It looks a lot like Ryan’s tax plan, both in his past budgets and in a recently unveiled framework in June:

  • Both Trump and Ryan’s budgets call for a bottom rate of 10 percent and a top rate of 25 percent. Ryan’s latest plan edges that up to 12 percent and 33 percent.
  • Both Trump and Ryan’s latest plans call for massive expansions of the standard deduction
  • They both call for a dramatic reduction in the corporate tax rate, currently 35 percent. Ryan called for a 25 percent rate in his budgets and now favors a 20 percent one. Trump wants an even lower one, at 15 percent.
  • Trump and Ryan both support standard Republican plans to repeal the estate tax and alternative minimum tax.

There are definitely differences; Ryan wants to end taxation of income that companies earn abroad, whereas Trump wants to tax it when it’s earned. Ryan is more enthusiastic about cutting taxes on investment income.

But overall, Trump is proposing a massive across-the-board tax cut vastly larger than the one passed by George W. Bush in 2001. He promises to sign into law what is perhaps the single biggest supply-side tax reform in history, at immense expense.

This is the kind of thing that Ryan has supported his whole career. And one reasonable thing to infer from his unflagging support of Trump, even as he finds himself constantly apologizing for the candidate’s racist antics, is that massive upper-income tax cuts are a huge part of Ryan’s vision of conservatism, an even bigger part than the kind of reforms on immigration and entitlements that a Clinton administration promises.

Ryan’s faith in Trump’s supply-sider instincts was confirmed by Trump’s choice of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate, a choice that Ryan almost immediately celebrated:

The rapturous reaction makes sense. Pence and Ryan arrived in the House at around the same time — 1998 for Ryan, 2000 for Pence — and both spent years toiling away on the right flank of their caucus, with Pence chairing the Republican Study Committee from 2007 to 2009 and Ryan leading the charge for a Social Security privatization scheme too radical for even the Bush administration in 2005.

When they both rose to prominence, they supported each other, with Pence offering enthusiastic endorsements of Ryan’s budgets. And each has, against all odds, been normalized as a mainstream, responsible member of the party in spite of his radical origins.

But in the present moment, Pence is more than a reassuring face on the ticket. He’s a force for keeping Trump from straying too far from the Republican mainstream, and, more importantly, he's a signal that Trump doesn’t want to stray too far from the Republican mainstream.

Maybe Pence can deter Trump from unilaterally imposing tariffs, as he very much could do. Maybe he can get Trump to revert to his 2000-era support for Social Security privatization. Pence is a potential mechanism for taming Trump's worst tendencies, from Ryan’s perspective, as well as a good-faith gesture from Trump that he may be willing to downplay those tendencies in the interest of party unity.

But again, Ryan was defending Trump’s likely legislative record even before Pence was in the picture to babysit Trump and make sure he doesn’t veer too far from the rest of the party. That wasn’t about personal loyalty. It was about Ryan’s deep, abiding interest in massive tax cuts.