The reluctant embrace of Trump

Published 11:08 am Friday, July 22, 2016

by John Micek

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc) wanted to talk about a bunch of stuff during his primetime address at the Republican National Convention.

But Donald Trump wasn’t high on that list. He barely mentioned him at all.

Instead, the ever-wonkish Ryan focused on the House GOP’s legislative agenda.

He hammered home how important “a conservative governing majority” was to its chances and how Republicans needed the win the White House to ensure its success.

“There is a reason people in our country are disappointed and restless,” he said. “If opportunity seems like it’s been slipping away, that’s because it has. And liberal progressive ideas have done exactly nothing to help . . . It’s the latest chapter of an old story: Progressives deliver everything except progress.”

Ryan’s embrace of Trump, with whom he has publicly differed even as he supports him, was reluctant at best.

“We Republicans have made a choice,” Ryan said, seemingly trying to convince himself that it was a good idea — as much as he was the thousands of delegates crammed onto the floor of the Quicken Loans Arena here.

Ryan, at least, was animated.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell looked like he was filming a hostage video while undergoing a root canal.

To be fair, the disdain was mutual. The Kentucky Republican was booed as he took the stage. But he managed to warm up the crowd with some scathing criticism of Democrat Hillary Clinton.

“There is a clear choice before us, and it is not Hillary,” McConnell said. “You know what the next four years will look like with Hillary. And you know that if Hillary is president, we will continue to slide, distracted by the scandals that follow the Clintons like flies.”

The most McConnell could offer for Trump was that, unlike Clinton, at least, he wouldn’t veto or disregard the bills that Senate Republicans send to his desk.

The party leaders’ continued reticence in the face of the Trump juggernaut is a reminder of the challenges the billionaire could face in dealing with a Congress that mostly acknowledges him as a Republican, but not a conservative fellow traveler.

“These guys never saw Trump coming,” Phil English, a former Republican Congressman from Erie, Pa., said. “He’s not their flavor of Republican and they don’t agree on many issues.”

Still, McConnell’s and Ryan’s speeches “were good tactics,” English said.

By focusing on policy and the GOP down-ballot, “it’s not putting them on a collision course [with Trump],” he noted.

U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, a Republican from northeastern Pennsylvania and an early Trump supporter, said he thinks Ryan has a “much higher confidence level” in Trump than he did when he first announced his support in early June.

Trump’s “willingness to work with Paul Ryan gives him a greater confidence level and that will be good,” Barletta said. “He knows that if the House sends legislation to Ryan’s desk, [Trump] will sign it. If Ryan takes our proposals to Hillary Clinton, it will go from her desk to the wastebasket.”

But according to at least two veteran observers, Ryan and McConnell have their eyes on a greater set of concerns than whether Trump is ideologically simpatico to their respective agendas.

“Their most important goal right now is protecting the House and Senate,” Kyle C. Kopko, a political science professor at Elizabethtown College said. “They’re very aware that the [national] polls have it at an advantage for Clinton or are close.”

For Ryan, who has one of the biggest GOP advantages in recent memory, that’s less of a concern.

But for McConnell, it’s an animating concern: a swing of just five seats in November could hand control of the Senate back to the Democrats. Among the seats on the line is Toomey’s.

And to make sure it stays Republican, both need a motivated GOP base.

“That was very much their focus — the whole ticket,” Terry Madonna, a political science professor and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College, said. “The last thing they want to do is lose the Senate.”

And if that means that Ryan and McConnell have to give clearly reluctant support to Trump, then that’s what’s going to happen, Kopko added.

“The people may have spoken [at the convention], but Ryan and McConnell need to thinking about governing for more than just four years,” he said.

But first they have to survive November — which seems very far away, indeed.

JOHN L. MICEK, an award-winning political journalist, is the Opinion Editor and Political Columnist for PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Readers may follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek and email him at