Politics & Policy

What To Expect from the Trump–Ryan Relationship

Trump and Ryan on Capitol Holl, November 10, 2016 (Reuters photo: Joshua Roberts)
Conservatives should hope for a synthesis of Trumpism and Ryanism that improves on both.

Donald Trump’s first appointments as president-elect were a mixed bag for Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Reince Priebus, a longtime Ryan ally from Wisconsin who headed the Republican National Committee, will be Trump’s White House chief of staff. Steve Bannon, a financial executive and publisher who has vowed to destroy Ryan, will be a top White House counselor to Trump.

Trump and Ryan will be, respectively, the most powerful and second-most powerful elected officials in the United States, and their relationship will do a lot to determine the future of the Trump administration, the Republican party, and the country.

As is well known, the two of them do not see eye to eye on several issues. Ryan made his name advocating reforms of Social Security and Medicare that would rein in their growth. Trump says he wants to protect those programs from any cuts. Ryan is a free trader. Trump says he favors free trade, but favors tearing up existing free-trade agreements and imposing tariffs to keep companies from moving jobs abroad: which is to say that he does not actually support free trade. Ryan favors higher levels of legal immigration and wants to give illegal immigrants “a chance to get right with the law.” Trump has sometimes talked about reducing immigration, says he wants to step up the pace of deportations, and never explicitly said during the presidential campaign that any illegal immigrants should be eligible for legal status.

Trump called for a temporary ban on Muslims’ entering the country, which may or may not have been superseded by later calls for a temporary ban on entries by people from nations where anti-American terrorism has originated. Ryan criticized a ban based on religion. Trump said that a Mexican-American judge was biased against him because of his immigration views. Ryan called this comment racist and, in his speech at the Republican convention, dwelt on the Declaration of Independence and its affirmation of the equal worth of all human beings.

Ryan sees the promotion of democracy and human rights abroad as important objectives for U.S. policy. Trump does not appear to agree. Ryan says NATO is an “indispensable ally”; Trump has said the alliance should dissolve if other countries refuse to pull more weight. Paul Ryan calls Vladimir Putin “an aggressor that does not share our interests.” Trump takes a different view.

Conservative journalists, policy wonks, and legislative aides in Washington, D.C., will mostly, maybe even overwhelmingly, be rooting for Ryan over Trump on these policy issues. So will a lot of Republican voters across the country. The polls — which, by the way and contrary to a widespread myth, were fairly accurate about both the primaries (they showed Trump winning the most votes) and the November election (they showed Clinton with a narrow vote lead) — indicate that a lot of them think that illegal immigrants should have a chance at citizenship. Polling of Republicans on trade this year has been more volatile, but even the survey with the least pro-trade results found that a third of Republicans think well of most trade agreements.

The struggle between Ryanism and Trumpism, to the extent the latter exists, has the potential to polarize Republicans. But neither presents a truly adequate and compelling vision for the Republican party or the country, and a fruitful synthesis ought to be possible.

Trumpism is weakest when it turns to specific policy recommendations, which it rarely does. Trump’s temporary Muslim ban, for example, was originally supposed to be conducted on the honor system. It was less a considered anti-terrorist measure, that is, than a way of communicating his willingness to do whatever it takes to protect Americans. And if Trump really means to reject Ryan-style entitlement reform, he cannot, as a matter of math, make good on his promises to control the federal debt and cut middle-class taxes.

Or take trade. It is certainly true that competition from imports has hurt some workers, companies, and communities. But raising tariffs would inflict damage all its own. According to one estimate, President George W. Bush’s steel tariffs destroyed more jobs at American companies that use steel than the steel industry itself provides.

Ryanism resembles Bushism in proposing that a mix of tax cuts, deregulation, freer trade, entitlement reform, and high immigration will raise economic growth and lift all boats. That promise, though, is increasingly hard to believe. The Bush administration advanced a similar agenda (the steel tariffs were imposed to make bigger trade-liberalizing deals politically possible). It achieved much of that agenda, but the economic results, particularly for people in the middle of the income spectrum and below, were unimpressive.

Even if the promise is true, however, the agenda has a fatal political weakness: It gives a lot of working-class voters something to fear without giving them any concrete and immediate benefits. And it lends itself to a rhetoric of hope that is a poor fit for this moment and, maybe, this era. The idea of democracy promotion abroad has similar drawbacks.

Optimism about immigration seems to be going over particularly poorly. For one thing, it is especially hard to make the case that a substantial increase in low-skilled immigration — something for which, lest we forget, a large bipartisan majority in the Senate voted in 2013 — will boost the fortunes of people in hard economic conditions. Immigration boosterism on the left and right also tends either to ignore or to disdain the cultural concerns immigration raises: the sense that too much immigration can threaten a way of life.

Trumpism both corrects and exploits some of Ryanism’s blind spots. Trump won big among white voters without college degrees. In part that must be because Trump’s agenda offered these voters more, and threatened them less, than Ryan’s. Rather than supplementing entitlement reform with free-market policies that would be more attractive to these voters, Trump ditched entitlement reform and offered them protectionism. And having made that trade, Trump built up enough political support that he may now be able to deliver on some of the policies on which Ryan and he agree, such as large tax cuts for the highest earners in the land.

Trumpism both corrects and exploits some of Ryanism’s blind spots.

The distance between Ryan’s and Trump’s views could well shrink. Both have been capable of changing their minds. Trump has famously switched his position on many issues. He began the campaign suggesting that he would deport all illegal immigrants. In August, he gave a speech saying that he would increase enforcement of the immigration laws and suggesting (without explicitly saying) that he might give legal status to many remaining illegal immigrants after that work had been accomplished — a more realistic position.

Ryan earlier this year said that he is “not a neocon” on foreign policy, having reached a “limited view” of the potential of American intervention overseas after seeing the results of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over the last few years, he has had a heightened appreciation of the extent to which voters considered the Republican program to be of exclusive benefit to the affluent. His House agenda, “A Better Way,” is an attempt to put forward conservative policy ideas that might have wider appeal. And he has tried to co-opt Trump on trade, arguing that a tax reform that changes the treatment of imports would accomplish some of Trump’s goals without tariffs.

#related#Trump and Ryan have incentives to get along. Ryan wants Trump to sign his legislation and does not want Trump stirring up opposition to him. Trump would not benefit from the chaos in the House that would follow Ryan’s ouster. But Trump has the whip hand in the Trump–Ryan relationship. Trump won roughly 60 million votes nationwide; his media megaphone is bigger; his command of the top levels of the executive branch will be firmer than Ryan’s of House Republicans; and the Congress has grown institutionally weaker over time as the presidency has grown stronger.

On a lot of the issues where the two disagree, Trump doesn’t need legislative cooperation. The president has the constitutional authority to ban Muslim entrants to this country. He can withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a pending trade agreement among eleven countries, without a vote of Congress. He can devalue our NATO commitments just by talking. He already has.

What conservatives should hope for, though, is not the total victory of one of these worldviews over the other. If we lived in the best of all possible worlds, they would be synthesized into something better than either.

— Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor at National Review. This article appears in the December 5, 2016, issue of National Review.

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Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.


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