House speaker Paul Ryan’s critics smell blood. The dismal response to the Obamacare replacement plan the House Republican leadership has put forward has entangled the speaker in a fight in which he is simultaneously being assailed by conservatives for betraying them while being demonized by liberals for being too conservative. But perhaps the most dangerous attack on Ryan is the one being orchestrated by Breitbart.com. The website’s publication this week of a tape of Ryan speaking to fellow House Republicans from last October in which he disavowed Donald Trump was the latest example of a concerted campaign against the speaker from people with very close ties to certain people in the White House.
The Breitbart attack, which is assumed, rightly or wrongly, to be the work of senior Trump adviser Steve Bannon who used to be the website’s CEO, appears to be setting Ryan up to be the scapegoat for a failure to repeal and replace Obamacare. But if President Trump is being advised that his onetime critic turned ally can be thrown under the bus in order to deflect blame from a possible health-care debacle, he’s mistaken. Trump may not like Ryan any better than Bannon or the rest of the Breitbart crowd. But if he plans on accomplishing anything he needs to realize that Ryan is the one indispensable man in Congress without which he faces certain failure on a host of issues. The Breitbart-inspired palace intrigue that clearly aims at deposing the speaker may be intended as a purge of a figure that is no Trump loyalist. But if it succeeds it will do serious damage to Trump’s hopes of a successful presidency.
To those who subscribe to the blood-and-soil nationalist-populist creed promoted by the Breitbart website while it was run by Steve Bannon, the speaker is the epitome of everything they despise about the so-called Republican and conservative establishment. Ryan is not only the ultimate policy wonk, he’s the leading spokesman today for the sort of idea-oriented reform conservatism that seeks to change Washington while keeping faith with basic principles about liberty and government spending. But to those who embrace the sort of populist politics in which worries about debt, out-of-control entitlements, and support for limited government are tossed aside, Ryan is the man they love to hate.
Ryan claims he and the Trump administration are on the same page with regard to his health-care bill and that it was drafted with the assistance of the White House. But with the White House showing little enthusiasm for Ryan’s effort, it isn’t hard to connect the dots between Breitbart’s effort to stir up the grassroots to oppose the replacement bill and the West Wing palace intrigue in which Bannon and his allies are undermining White House chief of staff Reince Preibus, a longtime Ryan ally.
Sacrificing Ryan will ensure an already deeply divided Republican caucus completely comes apart.
Ryan is caught between the House Freedom Caucus and other conservatives opposing the bill and more moderate Republicans who share his belief that it is incumbent on their party to make the compromises needed if they are to govern rather than merely posture. By pushing a compromise solution on Obamacare predicated on the notion that Republicans can’t takeaway an entitlement from millions, the speaker got the worst of both worlds. The result is that Ryan looks more vulnerable than ever. That has led Bannon’s erstwhile followers to believe he can be made to walk the plank over Obamacare so Trump can not only evade responsibility for the problem but also further consolidate his hold on the GOP.
In the Leninist mindset of the Bannon/Breitbart camp, this makes perfect sense since their goal is not so much to reform the health-care system as it is to transform a conservative party into a Trumpian one. Being able to hang Ryan’s scalp on Breitbart’s mantelpiece will also send an even louder signal to Republicans about who is really in charge.
But no matter how many times they call it “RyanCare,” it is Donald Trump who now owns the health-care mess, not the House of Representatives. Trump must find a way to change the current law that he campaigned against, and the only way to do that will be with the help of the congressional leadership. Bannon’s friends at Breitbart may think that will eventually be easier if Ryan is made to pay the price for the first GOP attempt to roll back Barack Obama’s signature health-care law. Yet they seem to forget that when conservatives finally forced John Boehner out of the speakership in 2015, Ryan was the only possible alternative. No one else could bridge the differences between the party’s different wings or provide the knowledge and leadership that could enable Republicans to deal with the complicated budget and health-care issues that are on their collective plate.
Since then, Ryan’s stock has gone down in some quarters as he has borne the responsibility for keeping the House functioning in a time of unprecedented division. But sacrificing Ryan will ensure an already deeply divided Republican caucus completely comes apart. In that case, Trump won’t have a prayer of getting anything he wants through Congress, including an infrastructure bill on which he will likely stake his reputation.
While Trump is content to let the speaker twist in the wind as he suffers attacks from those who are his loyalists, the president should be reminding them that he would be the most severely wounded casualty of any GOP civil war. Perhaps Trump might have thought at one time he could form a coalition to pass legislation with some Democrats, but given the depth of the liberal “resistance” to his presidency, that is never going to happen. The palace intriguers and their Breitbart allies need to stop crowing about their attacks and start piping down when it comes to Ryan. The only way the president gets a thing done is if he starts acting like Ryan’s partner rather than his tormentor.