Of all the disappointments of the last few weeks the biggest for me is the failure of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan to stand up and provide moral leadership to the country. In the immediate aftermath of the president’s racist remarks Ryan provided only the mildest criticism. He did not use his special standing as the youngest of the nation’s two top congressional leaders to defend the character of our nation. He did not use the profile of his office to tell the people of the world that most Americans are embarrassed by the president and do not share his views.
“Very unfortunate” and “not helpful.” This is what passes for a stinging rebuke of the president from the one man in position to make a difference.
Paul Ryan punted. Presumably his weak leadership on moral issues is meant to preserve his ability to work with the White House to pass legislation enacting conservative Republican policies. It is not worth it. Ryan is compromising in the wrong direction to notch the wrong wins.
Although Ryan has been in Washington, D.C. for a long time, first as a staffer and then a member from Wisconsin, he came to national prominence as Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012. Then he was described as the future of the Republican Party. Clean cut, handsome, with an all-American physique cut through cross-fit training. These are the superficial observations the news media and most Americans make when they first meet a candidate for office — often through television. Only later, sometimes when it is too late, do we begin to find out what politicians are really made of as leaders.
Roger Stone, the rogue political operative who has advised President Trump, has said television presence was one of the factors important to Trump’s candidacy. Viewers of The Apprentice saw Trump on television playing the part of a CEO in a room similar to the Cabinet Room in the White House. Stone says the average viewer makes no distinction between what they see on entertainment programs and what they see on the news. Now we know Trump was only playing a part.
Our over-reliance on television as a means to size up character at long distance has been demonstrated several times in recent years. Another example is John McCain’s running mate Sarah Palin, who was thrust onto the national stage based largely on her appearance and her value as a symbol of new thinking, only to crash when put to the test.
Even after the failure of the Romney-Ryan ticket, Ryan continued to benefit in the glow of a political crush. He did not seek the position, but was drafted to become Speaker of the House. He appeared to be the rare Washington politician who lacked a lust for power. He took the job only after securing a guarantee that others would take on the time consuming responsibilities of political fundraising so he could devote proper time to raising his young family. In 2016, when his name was floated as a possible candidate for president, he again passed for what appeared to be noble reasons.
To his credit Ryan was one of the few top Republicans who publicly broke with Trump in the final months of the 2016 campaign, but in my view he did not go far enough. As Speaker, he felt obliged to tell his caucus that he personally could not support the Trump-Pence ticket, but he told members to make their own decisions based on their own political calculus. In other words, do what you have to do to win.
Perhaps it is too much to ask, but I think Ryan, Reince Priebus, Mitch McConnell and other top Republicans should have gone even further. It was always clear that a Trump administration would turn out the way it has. For the good of the country, Ryan and other top Republicans should have done everything in their power, up to and including steps that would result in the election of Hillary Clinton as president, for the good of the country. The stakes were that high and well known. Trump’s fundamental character is too dangerous for the White House.
Today, Ryan is the only Republican with the voice, power and standing to make a difference. I am not suggesting that he lead an impeachment effort, because that is unrealistic. I am suggesting that at the very least he make a speech to the nation explaining our predicament and how we should work together to survive it. Let’s stop pretending that Trump’s approach to politics is a simple matter of personal style that is acceptable to some and unacceptable to others. His personality does not fall within the normal acceptable range and never has.
A speech from Ryan should denounce the president’s worst tendencies and deeds. It should make clear Trump’s worldview and values are not shared by all Americans. He should explain that despite our disappointment with the current president, the Constitution of the United States offers few viable paths for his removal from office. Our only hope, the Speaker could say, is to continue to try to work with President Trump for as long as he remains in office, try to move him toward behavior more in line with our values and, if all else fails, exercise our right to choose a new president in the next election.
The setting is important. The speech should be delivered from the Speaker’s office on Capitol Hill. Not the floor of the House. Not the Economic Club of Chicago. Not the Politico Playbook Breakfast or city hall in Milwaukee. The full weight of the office must be put behind this message, because that’s how serious the situation has become.
As politically unorthodox as this sounds, as suicidal as it might sound from the perspective of Ryan’s own career, it is a move that would immediately put the entire Republican Party establishment in a very difficult position. They could side with Ryan or they could side with President Trump. No doubt some would choose Trump, but with public opinion polls showing very weak public support for the president it is likely more would side with Ryan.
A “Declaration of Conscience” speech from Speaker Ryan might be the one gesture that could give the country as a whole the sense there is some survival strategy for the next three years. If it results in the removal of the Speaker by pro-Trump Republicans, Ryan will end his career in Congress on the right side of history and be in position to start a new one as a candidate for the White House, or another path of his choosing.
For a Speaker of the House who never sought the power he has — taking a stand on the right side of history should be an easy decision to make.