Paul Ryan's Alternate Election

Stuck with Donald Trump, the House speaker insists on running a 2016 campaign that doesn’t exist.

Andrew Harnik / AP

This election was never the election that Paul Ryan wanted to run. This cage match between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, or in Ryan’s thinly-veiled dismissal, “a personality contest” that has nothing to do with ideas or policy.

With three-and-a-half weeks to go, Ryan has simply decided not to run that campaign at all. No matter how silly, dissonant, or just plain out of touch with reality it looks, the House speaker is waging the 2016 race as he believes it should be run.

“Are we are going to be positive and inclusive, bring people together, and reclaim our founding principles? Or we are going to be overrun by liberal progressivism, with more drift, more despair, and more decline?” Ryan said Friday in a speech delivered to college Republicans at his home-state University of Wisconsin-Madison. “That is the choice before us.”

Ryan well knows that this is not actually the choice America faces on November 8. There is nothing “positive and inclusive” about the message that the nominee he’s endorsed, Donald Trump, is offering. And the Republican ticket is barely running against the notion of “liberal progressivism” that Ryan says that the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, represents.

Ryan has become a politician with blinders on—except he actually wants people to see him shielding his eyes and covering his ears. He has embraced a running gag that began this summer in Washington and which he brought back home to Wisconsin. He carries with him a pocket-sized copy of the “A Better Way” agenda that House Republicans have gamely but unsuccessfully tried to make a centerpiece of the election campaign. In response to almost every question, Ryan takes it out and holds it up—a nod to his increasingly desperate efforts to talk about those policies and not Donald Trump.

This is all part of the treacherous balancing act that Ryan is performing in the campaign’s closing weeks. He has condemned Trump’s offensive remarks about women, but in the face of a backlash from Trump and his supporters, he won’t rescind his endorsement. Yet to show the Republican base that he’s still on their side, Ryan delivered this speech on Friday in which he lit into Clinton and characterized her politics as a dreary maze of government bureaucracy and state control “imported from socialist Europe.”

What vision do Hillary Clinton and her party offer the people?   The America they want does not stand out. They want an America that is ordinary. There is kind of a gloom and a grayness to things. In the America they want, the driving force is the state. It is a place where government is taken away from the people, and we are ruled by our betters…by a cold and unfeeling bureaucracy that replaces original thinking. It is a place where the government twists the law—and the Constitution itself—to suit its purposes. A place where liberty is always under assault, where passion—the very stuff of life—is extinguished. That is the America Hillary Clinton wants. And if given control of Washington—if given control of Congress—it is the kind of America she will stop at nothing to have. The America they want is remade in the mold of what we call liberal progressivism.  

Ryan kept returning to the idea of “liberal progressivism”—an amalgamation of two terms that have come to mean basically the same thing. Once Republicans had succeeded in driving down the popularity of liberalism, Democrats embraced “progressivism.” Now Ryan is trying to turn them both sour.

If he succeeds, perhaps it’s the fight the country could have in 2018, or in 2020 if he runs for president in four years. But it’s clearly not the fight in 2016. While Democrats are running a presidential campaign in a presidential year, Republican congressional leaders are trying to run a midterm campaign against a woman who’s not yet president. Repeatedly, Ryan talked about the need to keep the beachhead of Congress even if Clinton won, pledging in stronger terms than usual that as speaker, he would stand against her agenda.

For the second time this year, Ryan delivered a speech to a group of millennials in which he pointedly did not mention Trump’s name, as if the Republican were Voldemort from Harry Potter. And as the roomful of congressional interns did in March, these college Republicans played along. They asked him serious questions about policy, and about how they could sell GOP ideas to students who have largely “rejected conservative values,” as one student put it. Ryan’s advice? “Don’t turn it into a personality contest,” he said. “Don’t talk about the latest Twitter storm … from someone.”

Yes, Ryan is trying to run a substantive campaign. But he also really wants people to notice that he’s trying, to get credit for ignoring a candidate that he still supports. It doesn’t seem like a winning move. But for a speaker caught between two warring bases coming for his job, perhaps it’s the only one he’s got.