On the second night of the Republican National Convention, hours after his party formally anointed Donald J. Trump as its presidential nominee, House Speaker Paul Ryan made an impassioned plea for party unity.
"In the plainest terms I know, it is all on the line. Let us act that way. Let us act that way," he repeated, going off script, slightly more softly, almost — if you were inclined to interpret it that way — as if he were trying to persuade himself.
"We Republicans have made a choice," he said. He’s right. So what did he have to say about his party’s choice — the man who now leads them at what Ryan and every other speaker have defined as a life-or-death moment for the American republic?
First, that Trump would stand (alongside Ryan and vice presidential nominee Mike Pence) to deliver the 2017 State of the Union, which is to say, he would be president. And second: that "Only with Donald Trump and Mike Pence," Ryan said, "do we have a chance of a better way."
That’s not even damning with faint praise. That’s praising with crossed fingers.
But it was a pretty good indication of the bind that Ryan (alongside fellow legislative heavy hitters House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who also spoke tonight) finds himself in.
The rose-colored scenario: Donald Trump will be a generic Republican
It’s readily apparent that Ryan, McCarthy, and McConnell don’t believe that Donald Trump is a good Republican or that he’s good for Republicans. If they do believe there’s anything special about him, their speechwriters should all be fired; their speeches tonight could have been given just as easily for Marco Rubio, John Kasich, or the "generic Republican" pollsters ask about in congressional races.
In fairness, that really is their best-case scenario for Trump: that he’d follow the agenda set forth for him by strategists and "thinkers" like Ryan. Way back in January, as Eliana Johnson wrote for National Review, some House Republicans supported him over Ted Cruz because they saw Trump as an empty vessel they could fill.
"If you look at Trump’s actual policies, they’re pretty thin. There’s not a lot of meat there," says one Republican member in Ryan’s inner circle, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about the two front-runners as leadership has carefully avoided doing all week. If Trump were to get the nomination, he would "be looking to answer the question: ‘Where’s the beef?’ And we will have that for him," says the member.
Six months later, even that prognosis seems optimistic. For every Trump attempt to cater to Republican policy orthodoxy (for instance, by releasing a Supreme Court "shortlist" of solidly conservative judges), he’s not only flouted the party line but flaunted that flouting. He didn’t just disagree with the National Rifle Association about a proposal to restrict gun purchases to Americans on terrorist watch lists; he bragged about trying to get them to come around to his side. They had, after all, endorsed him.
The hopeful scenario: Donald Trump will be a rubber stamp
What remains of the Republican hope for Trump is something even emptier than a generic Republican in the White House: a rubber stamp for the Republican Congress, executive branch be damned. It was Mitch McConnell of the Senate, not his House colleagues, who made the case Tuesday night that America would actually be better with Donald Trump in the White House, not just not-worse:
We put Obamacare repeal on the president's desk. He vetoed it. Donald Trump would sign it.
We passed a bill to build the Keystone pipeline. Obama vetoed it. Donald Trump would sign it.
We passed a bill to defund Planned Parenthood. Obama veto it. Donald Trump would sign it.
And on that sad day when we lost Justice Scalia, I made another pledge that Obama would not fill that seat. That honor will go to Donald Trump next year.
So with Donald Trump in the White House, Senate Republicans will build on the work we have done and pass more bills than any Senate in years.
With the exception of nominating a Supreme Court justice, this is essentially "Trump 2016: He Won’t Get in Our Way."
McCarthy went even further, treating the Trump-Pence executive branch as a kind of Ladies’ Auxiliary of the Republican Congress. By "electing a Republican Congress, Donald Trump, Mike Pence," he said, "we can build a better America and make that shining city on the hill right again." It was the only time he mentioned Trump by name.
The unspoken reality: Donald Trump would be an executive branch wild card
From a political perspective, it’s amusing to watch people like Paul Ryan — who’s supposed to be both the future of conservatism in America and the man holding the Republican Party together — tie himself into knots trying to be both polite and honest when talking about Donald Trump. But as a matter of policy, the idea that President Trump would be a simple congressional rubber stamp is dangerously flawed.
The Republican Party doesn’t need to be reminded that the executive branch has specific and separate powers within the federal government — and that those powers have expanded greatly over the first two presidencies of the 21st century. They’ve spent the past eight years protesting executive power. Ryan and McCarthy’s House has convened task force after task force. McConnell’s Senate has grilled official after official at oversight hearings.
There’s no talk, on the floor from which a new Republican candidate for president was nominated, of restraining the power a president of either party would have. That would make sense if congressional Republicans were comfortable with the ways their nominee might use that power, as they were with the ways George W. Bush used his.
But here’s the thing: The issues on which Donald Trump scares both liberals and establishment conservatives — his deliberately unpredictable approach to war and diplomacy; his apparent penchant for vindictive prosecution; his punitive immigration policies — are the issues on which the executive branch has a great deal of leeway.
Paul Ryan’s House can’t stop Donald Trump from deporting millions of unauthorized immigrants, even though Ryan has historically thought that is a bad idea. Mitch McConnell’s Senate can’t stop Trump from siding with Russia in its fight for regional dominance, as appalled as Senate hawks like John McCain and Lindsey Graham might be.
My colleague Dylan Matthews doesn’t think that congressional Republican leaders have a blind spot. He thinks that, as Ryan said Tuesday, they’ve made a choice: Their desire to cut taxes is so great that they’re willing to swallow a whole lot of stuff they don’t like to get the chance to do it. (To believe this, you have to believe that Trump is less interested in his own tax plan than in signing one like Ryan’s — but then again, the whole premise of the ‘where’s the beef?’ theory is that Trump isn’t terribly attached to any of his plans at all.)
I’m not so sure. I think it’s possible that, on some level, Paul Ryan and company don’t really think Donald Trump will be president — or at least, they’re keeping themselves from thinking about the possibility.
I think it’s possible that when they say a Republican Congress is the best hope for America, that’s just what they mean: that Americans should vote for Republicans down ballot. I think it’s possible they’re urging the cause of Trump only because they know they can’t get people to turn out for Republicans by slamming the party’s nominee.
I think it’s possible that when Mitch McConnell presents "rock star Republicans" in the Senate as the best hope against liberalism, he’s talking about both Obama and Clinton. I think it’s possible McConnell and Ryan both, if they were offered the choice, might choose another four years of the status quo — four years of a Republican majority in Congress, foiling the plans of a Democratic president — to four years of erratically unified government under a man who’s less loyal to the Republican Party than the party is to him.
Maybe, just maybe, at the end of the day, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell would rather reign in Clintonian hell than serve in a Trumpian heaven.