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Why Paul Ryan won't unendorse Donald Trump

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), holding up one of at least two "better ways" for GOP candidates.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), holding up one of at least two "better ways" for GOP candidates.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

After the release of recordings of GOP nominee Donald Trump having a lewd conversation with Billy Bush in 2005, dozens of GOP politicians have stated that they no longer support their party's nominee for the presidency. Most visible among the churn in the days following the recording's release is House Speaker Paul Ryan, who announced Tuesday that he was not going to campaign with Trump but at the same time was not withdrawing his endorsement.

Um ... okay.

Ryan's strategy, apparently, is "fish or cut bait according to your conscience." He has reportedly advised GOP House candidates to "handle Trump however it works best" in their races.

This is clearly an interesting strategy: Ryan is advising members to run their races as they see fit, in line with his advice back in June for Republicans to "vote their conscience," while taking a seemingly indecisive strategy in his own reelection bid.  

He has visibly parted ways with Trump, uninviting him from a campaign event shortly after the recording's release. But he is still visibly sticking with him in terms of his "endorsement."  

To Ryan's credit, this awkward halfway position is somewhat in line with his statement in June (which directly followed the mass shooting in Orlando) that he feels a need to toe the party line because, in his words:

I feel as a responsibility institutionally as the Speaker of the House that I should not be leading some chasm in the middle of our party. ... Because you know what I know that'll do? That'll definitely knock us out of the White House.

I say that his most recent statement are "somewhat" in line with his earlier statements because, to be clear, his new statements clearly either lead or at least shine a bright light on a chasm in the middle of his party. Yet he doesn't pull the endorsement — the thing he felt he couldn't withhold before because he didn't want to "lead some chasm in the middle of" his party.

Why would a (very smart) elected politician try to have his cake and eat it too at such a moment, when everybody is watching?  

To be sure, these are clearly unknown waters for even the most seasoned politician. Ryan recognized this when, back in June, he further explained his "position without conviction" by saying, "I get that this is a very strange situation. [Donald Trump]'s a very unique nominee."

All that said, to see the confusing side of this, I'll use a driving analogy. Suppose you wake up at the wheel of a car and have no idea what country you're in. What side of the road should you drive on? Right? Left?

I'm not going to answer definitively (except perhaps suggest that you call a cab), but I will resolutely state that while neither left nor right is clearly correct, "driving down the middle of the road" is not the right answer. That approach will certainly end up with you in a head-on collision.

Speaker Ryan is a smart man for whom I have a lot of respect, and that's why I have rolled out this argument in this way. I don't think he is doing things wrong, no matter how wrongheaded they might seem. Rather, I think he knows that he's probably going to "get hit" regardless of which side of the road he drives on. He might feel an institutional responsibility to not "lead a chasm" in his party, but more pressingly, I suspect he feels a responsibility to his party and colleagues to indicate his own uncertainty about the "right way to go."

In line with the "vote your conscience" decision, Ryan is giving GOP candidates a long leash on the Trump question. If he campaigns with Trump, then he forces GOP candidates who feel a need to distance themselves from Trump to also worry about distancing themselves from Ryan. If he pulls his endorsement of Trump, then he forces GOP candidates who feel it's better to support Trump to face questions about how they feel about their own party's speaker of the House.

Given that Ryan's stated goal is to ensure continued GOP control of Congress (or, failing that, at least the House of Representatives), he is facing a Hobson's choice: If he actually makes a real decision regarding Trump, he will quite possibly end up with nothing at all in terms of his own political and policy goals.

It is highly doubtful that Ryan's "endorsement" or campaigning matters for Trump's election, but his decision to unambiguously support or oppose Trump might have large implications for individual House races. In short, Ryan is trying to bring the "excluded middle" back into US politics. Regardless of how it works out, I think his description of this muddled position as an "institutional responsibility" is remarkably apt.