Politics & Policy

Paul Ryan’s Endorsement of Trump Misses the Point of the Presidency

(Rick Wilking/Reuters)
Conservatives need to remember that implementing a policy agenda isn’t the president’s main job.

With yesterday’s endorsement, Paul Ryan became the most important conservative conviction politician to relent to Trump—a certifying stamp that the party is, at last, unified behind Trump. Anyone who likes and admires Ryan should hope that, if Trump wins, Ryan is in a position of maximal influence, and, if Trump loses, Ryan is not made the scapegoat. With those eventualities in mind, an endorsement made sense, no matter how bitter it tastes.

But what is more interesting than Ryan’s decision to endorse is Ryan’s argument for Trump, which echoes most of the arguments one hears from the people in think tanks, journalism, or government who are most associated with the intellectual Right. Namely, Ryan argued that there was enough overlap between his legislative priorities and Trump’s views—or at least more overlap with Trump than with Clinton—that Trump is the best option. That’s very likely true. But if that’s the whole case for Trump, it’s not enough. Conservatives are articulating a misshapen view of the presidency in order to justify voting for Trump.

The Framers understood that there were broadly two ways in which a people are ruled: by laws and by will. As much as possible, they sought to have Americans ruled by laws, which were to be drafted, revised, passed, and implemented in a plodding process that prizes deliberation, compromise, modesty, and broad popular support. Most general matters can be addressed through the legislative process, but there are certain emergencies that require something other than lawmaking—they require executive discretion.

In Federalist 70, Hamilton argues that an energetic executive is “essential to the protection of the community against foreign attacks . . . to the steady administration of the laws, to the protection of property . . . to the security of liberty against the enterprises and assaults of ambition, of faction and of anarchy.”

The legislative branch cannot respond appropriately to these emergencies. The need for a nation to engage in statecraft, war-making, and policing means that those powers must be left to a different kind of branch of government. Hamilton’s view is that such powers need to be unified in one man who can conduct diplomacy and act as commander-in-chief and as the chief law-enforcement officer with “decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch.”

#share#Electing a president is foremost not about the legislative agenda each candidate favors, a realm in which the president is profoundly constrained by Congress, but rather about the quality most essential to the arenas in which the president has the most discretion: temperament.

The expansion of presidential power is not an argument for replacing a progressive Caesar with a nationalist Caesar.

For Republican lobbyists and the conservative intelligentsia, Donald Trump’s utter lack of knowledge of the basics of public policy and his character defects that allow him to be easily manipulated present an opportunity. The agenda items they were hoping for from a new president are within reach. But the presidency is not ultimately a conduit of lawmaking, even with today’s enlarged presidency. Presidential discretion has creeped into areas that should rightly be deliberated by Congress, with President Obama’s executive actions on immigration, the health-insurance mandates, and even the simple fact that the president is now the first mover in any budget process. Yet, the expansion of presidential power is not an argument for replacing a progressive Caesar with a nationalist Caesar, it’s an argument for congressional reassertion and less judicial deference.

So, yes, Donald Trump is more likely than Hillary Clinton to sign the Ryan budget. And, yes, Donald Trump is more likely than Hillary Clinton to appoint good judges. Even if conservatives could trust Trump on these issues, it wouldn’t be reason enough to support him. Congress can check bad budgets. The Senate can check bad judges. But neither is able to really constrain the area where the president has the most discretion and the stakes are highest. Putting someone impulsive, brutish, intemperate, megalomaniacal, and lacking any foundation in principle into such an office is just too dangerous. Emergencies at home and abroad arise in every presidency, and a president who grossly underreacts or grossly overreacts would be uniquely catastrophic. This is, in a way, the argument Hillary Clinton made yesterday in her foreign-policy speech in San Diego—and she focused on powers more essential to the presidency than did Ryan’s op-ed.

Conservatives have five more months to rationalize Trump, to develop false hopes, to imagine false characteristics of the man. That’s a lot of time to forget the truth in front of our noses: that Hillary Clinton would be a terrible president, but Donald Trump is simply unfit for office.


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