Within the political establishment, particularly its conservative elements, Ryan has a reputation as a man of character and substance. It’s been that way ever since Republicans took over the House in 2010, and Ryan, as chairman of the Budget Committee, began proposing ambitious fiscal policy changes including dramatic, politically risky cuts to Medicare and Medicaid. The reputation only grew when, last year, Ryan became speaker thanks in part to the trust he’d built up among warring Republican factions. Google his name and you’ll find it associated with terms like “political courage” and “The Thinker.”
Ryan’s record as a policy entrepreneur hasn't exactly matched the hype. Ryan promotes himself as a hard-nosed fiscal conservative, willing to confront difficult choices in order to reduce budget deficits and keep the national debt under control over the long run. But Ryan's proposals have been full of gimmicks and unrealistic assumptions that hide the true costs of what he has proposed. Ryan professes a strong interest in fighting poverty, and has famously taken reporters along for tours of soup kitchens and social programs. At the same time, Ryan has proposed budgets that would finance massive tax cuts for the wealthy with deep cuts to programs that provide the poorest Americans with food, health insurance and other basic necessities.
Still, Ryan seems to have a genuine interest in policy. That is more than you can say for most of his colleagues on Capitol Hill. And over the last year, as Trump has said one outrageous thing after another, Ryan has spoken out forcefully.
When Trump proposed a temporary ban on Muslims entering the U.S., Ryan said, "This is not who we are as a party or a country." When Trump appeared to condone violence by his supporters, Ryan said, "Nobody should say such things in my opinion because to even address or hint at violence is unacceptable." And when Trump declined to disavow support from David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader, Ryan said, "If a person wants to be the nominee of the Republican Party, there can be no evasion and no games. They must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry."
The condemnations were among the strongest by any Republican not challenging Trump for the the party’s presidential nomination. And they mattered because they came from the man who is, by any reasonable standard, the Republican Party’s leader. In fact, Ryan’s criticism of Trump gave hope to the conservative intellectuals leading the “Never Trump” movement.
Writing for his hometown newspaper, The Janesville Gazette, Ryan announced that he would be supporting Trump for a very simple reason: Trump would endorse and sign the initiatives House Republicans hope to pass next year, while Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, would not. “It’s no secret that he and I have our differences,” Ryan wrote. “And when I feel the need to, I’ll continue to speak my mind. But the reality is, on the issues that make up our agenda, we have more common ground than disagreement.”
On this, Ryan is almost certainly correct. Trump has given conservatives plenty of reason to doubt his commitment to their cause. The real estate mogul has no governing record with which to establish a baseline of his beliefs, while Trump’s sentiments about many policies seem to change by the day. At various points, he has endorsed ideas like single-payer health insurance that are too liberal even for many Democrats.
Still, Trump is a creature of corporate America, whose allegiances traditionally lie with the GOP. He has proposed a massive tax cut for the wealthy, showing fealty to the cause the conservative movement holds most dear. The clearest pledge he’s made, to build a wall along the border and to deport massive numbers of undocumented immigrants, is, if anything, too extreme for many Republicans. However loose his allegiance to conservative orthodoxy, Trump as president would surely support more of the Republican agenda than Clinton would.
But the objections about Trump that Ryan raised publicly over the last few months weren’t strictly or even mostly about ideology. They were about basic values and temperament.
Ryan rejected the Muslim ban because because it is un-American to judge a person by his or her faith -- and because merely proposing the ban reinforced prejudices against a group already facing discrimination and even hate crimes. Ryan spoke out against Trump’s comments on violence because responsible leaders grasp the importance of civility and order -- and recognize the ease with which, even in a stable democracy like this one, mobs can quickly get out of control. Ryan attacked Trump’s nonchalant response to the Duke endorsement because he realized that the proper response to bigotry is to condemn it, instantly and loudly.
Or maybe Ryan didn’t believe all of those things. Maybe Ryan made those statements simply because he worried that association with Trump’s statements and sentiments would tarnish the Republican brand. And maybe he’s decided to endorse Trump now because the polls suggest Trump will be a strong presidential candidate in November -- if not strong enough to win the presidency, then at least strong enough to avoid hurting Republican candidates for state and other federal offices.
That theory would explain why Ryan gave his endorsement without extracting so much as a token apology from Trump on the Muslim ban, the prior comments about violence and Duke, or any of the dozens of other outrageous things Trump has said and done in the last few months. Why force the party’s candidate for president to grovel when doing so might diminish his chances to win the election? Why risk alienating the hordes of Trump enthusiasts, who constitute a significant part of the Republican Party’s base and seem either unbothered by or enthusiastic about Trump's ugliest sentiments?
All elected officials confront tradeoffs between what they think is right and what they think they must do to win. The test of political character is where they strike the balance. Ryan was supposed to be one of those leaders who cares enough about principle to take major political risks from time to time. It now appears that he is an ordinary politician, the type who shows courage right up to the moment it matters.