Knowing many were there to see Pence, Ryan began his short speech with his version of red meat: mild attacks on the Clintons.
“I’ve got a couple of points to make,” Ryan said. “Number one...”
“LOCK HER UP!” a man shouted.
Ryan ignored him.
“For those of you who did experience the ‘90s like we did, this is what life with the Clintons looks like. It is scandal after scandal after scandal,” the speaker continued.
“HILLARY FOR PRISON!”
Ryan forged ahead. “The point I’m trying to make it, do we want four years of that stuff? Good lord no.”
“Where were you when we needed you?” another man called out. A few others joined in, demanding that Clinton be jailed.
“Let me tell you what we do need. We need courage,” Ryan said.
Now the crowd was chanting almost as one. “LOCK HER UP! LOCK HER UP!”
Ryan let out a nervous chuckle. The mild-mannered, conservative ideas man could see this was getting away from him. He tried to steer them toward safer, more comfortable ground. “I’ve got a better idea!” Ryan said, his voice rising to meet the crowd’s. “Let’s make sure she never becomes president of the United States in the first place!”
They cheered, and Ryan moved on. He praised Governor Scott Walker. He lauded Johnson. He urged Republicans to vote for several other local candidates.
One name was missing.
“And Donald Trump!” a man yelled. Then everyone joined in again. “TRUMP! TRUMP! TRUMP!”
“I’m getting there,” Ryan replied. “Just wait.”
Ryan did get there in the end, and perhaps just in time to save his job.
In the closing weeks of the campaign, the Republican speaker began to more fully embrace the candidacy of “our nominee”—the man his party had chosen over 16 other candidates, each of whom the media, the GOP establishment, and likely Ryan himself had deemed more suitable for the job of president. For one, Ryan finally started uttering his name. “I walked in to the City Hall in Janesville, Wisconsin, about two weeks ago, and I cast my ballot. I voted for Donald Trump and Mike Pence,” he said in Mukwonago, a line he used at just about every stop across the state last week.
That Ryan had to announce his vote at all was revealing. If Trump is the bad boy of Republican politics, the 46-year-old speaker is the Eagle Scout. Born and raised in Janesville, about a 50-minute drive south of Madison, Wisconsin, Ryan was both prom king and class president. As a young activist and congressional aide in Washington, he studied under Jack Kemp before winning his first House race in 1998 at the age of 28. He’s been a conservative star in Congress for more than a decade, having crafted budget proposals centered around steep cuts to taxes and entitlements that began as non-starters among Republicans and ended up as party doctrine. That is, until Trump came along.
Ryan is every bit the career politician that Trump is not, and he rose in stature in part because of his ability to explain his conservative manifestos—and the philosophy of the party—cogently, if not always eloquently. But the white papers always came easier to him than the politics. “Paul has always been a policy guy and always been an issue guy,” said Representative James Sensenbrenner, a fellow Wisconsin legislator who has been a mentor to Ryan. “There were times early in his career where he would hand me these lengthy treatises, and I’d say, ‘Well how are you going to sell this to the people?’ Because they’re not going to sit and listen to an academic lecture.”