There may be no better party to govern the United States at this moment than the Republican Party. It is only appropriate that a country seemingly of two minds on virtually every matter of salience has elevated a party with a split-personality disorder to lead it. The GOP’s schizophrenia has been on full display in the last 48 hours. In both style and substance, the GOP’s House Speaker Paul Ryan and its leader, President-elect Donald Trump, could not be more divergent.
“The same guts, determination, and focus that propelled President-elect Donald Trump to victory will come in mighty handy when he assumes office,” wrote the Washington Examiner’s Jennifer Harper in a column touting Trump’s “old-school courage” in the headline. She observed that a Quinnipiac University poll found that an overwhelming 71 percent of respondents describe Trump as a “strong person,” though that same survey found just 37 percent approve of his performance as president-elect.
“Style and chutzpah play a role as does gamesmanship and instinct,” Harper noted. Indeed, we have seen a lot of “style and chutzpah” from Trump. Courage is, however, another matter.
Trump’s truculence invigorates Republican partisans who long to see “fight” in their leadership, even if that fight is a doomed one or the objectives to which they have committed themselves are of dubious value. It seems, though, that the incoming president most certainly does care about what people think—certain people.
Take ObamaCare as an example. Trump is no conservative, as he has made clear. His policy preferences when it comes to health-care reform are more populist—which is to say, fashionable. The language he uses when articulating his ideas should inspire some speculation about whether Trump really can’t be troubled by how America’s trendsetters judge him.
During a February 2016 CNN town hall in which Donald Trump endorsed the ACA’s individual mandate on consumers to purchase insurance or face a fine (later redefined as a tax by the Supreme Court), Trump echoed liberal descriptions of the dystopian future that will follow the repeal of ObamaCare’s mandates. “We’re going to take care of them through maybe concepts of Medicare,” Trump said. “You cannot let people die on the street, OK?” This was a laughable characterization of the status quo ante March of 2010, but it was also one that is accepted unquestioningly in liberal social circles.
Nor is it popular to recognize the fiscal necessity of the coming entitlement funding crisis, so Donald Trump simply doesn’t. “Why Donald Trump won’t touch your entitlements,” read a 2015 headline on Donald Trump’s website. This past weekend, incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer reiterated Trump’s intention to ignore the coming crisis. Estimates indicate a Medicare fund that insures 55 million will be exhausted by 2028. Social Security faces insolvency by 2034.
By contrast, the lifetime members of Donald Trump’s adopted party are not possessed of his self-confidence. Baked into their DNA is the understanding that theirs is not America’s popular political party. They understand intuitively that their agenda is one that requires salesmanship and delicacy to see realized, and that influencers in a position to shape public opinion are not their natural allies.
These congenital traits were on display last night in a CNN town hall in which Speaker Ryan elaborated on the Republican Party’s governing agenda. Ryan is the anti-Trump. He is a details guy. He is unfailingly respectful and polite, even to those whose intention is to embarrass him. Though he goes out of his way in the effort not to disaffect those who clearly disagree with or even fear GOP policies, Ryan does not shy away from articulating them—albeit, in a manner that fails to satisfy combative partisans on his side of the aisle.
For example, Ryan was clearly the target of an effort to shame him over his party’s attempts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act: A cancer-survivor asked him a “question” in the form of a heartfelt thank you to President Obama for personally saving his life. The moment was framed by the event’s hosts as a highlight, so much so that CNN promoted a video of the questioner while declining to include Ryan’s response. They should have; it was a good one.
Amid celebrating the cancer survivor’s life, Ryan assured him that he was wrong to claim the GOP was going to repeal the ACA without passing a replacement. “The law is collapsing, and so we’ve got to rescue people,” he contended. That wasn’t Ryan’s only moment of pluck. When pressed on whether the government has an obligation to make sure people have health insurance, Ryan declined to respond in the affirmative. He restated the fiscal imperative of reforming Medicare’s structure while there is still time, and proudly asserted his belief that it is immoral to commit taxpayer funds to abortion providers like Planned Parenthood. In doing so, he educated the public about the existence of the more than 13,000 community care clinics that are more deserving of federal funding.
Ryan was confronted by an undocumented family fearing deportation and a woman apprehensive about the threat posed by the criminal illegal immigrants in the U.S. Amid a display of compassion for both, he reiterated the principles of the pre-Trump GOP. He said there would be no “deportation force” anytime soon, contradicting the president-elect’s campaign pledges, while insisting that there would be enhanced border security and, eventually, reform with an eye toward legal status for the illegal population. Those who hoped for confrontation were disappointed, but Ryan’s interlocutors seemed reassured. And maybe a few hardened hearts in the viewing audience were reached in the process.
Some of Ryan’s positions are not especially popular—at least, not in center-left opinion-making circles—but they are conventionally conservative. Ryan and the leader of his party are cordial in public, but they diverge dramatically both in affectation and in policy preference. The churlish displays Trump puts on with reporters can be mistaken for courage. By contrast, Ryan’s style is superficially unctuous, insofar as he goes out of his way to avoid alienating those whose mission is to trip him up. To listen to what the two are saying is, however, to be left with little doubt as to where the real courage in the GOP lies.