Politics & Policy

Paul Ryan Is a Convenient Scapegoat

House Speaker Paul Ryan (Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
The only explanation that satisfies Trump’s ardent supporters is to insist that Trump was betrayed.

Paul Ryan did it.

That’s the argument many of the louder voices on the right are shouting. In the story they tell, the speaker of the House is fully responsible for the GOP’s failure to pass an Obamacare repeal-and-replace bill last week. President Trump should walk across a Havana ballroom like Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II, kiss Ryan on the mouth and say, “I know it was you, Paul. You broke my heart.”

Jeanine Pirro, host of Justice with Judge Jeanine on Fox News and an old friend of Trump’s whose support for his candidacy was about as nuanced as a horse head in your bed, suggested that Trump was beguiled and seduced by Ryan.

“Americans elected the one man they believed could do it. A complete outsider. Someone beholden to no one — but them,” Pirro said straight into the camera on her TV show.

“And Speaker Ryan, you come in, with all your swagger and experience, and you sell him a bill of goods that ends up a complete and total failure. And you allow our president, in his first 100 days, to come out of the box like that?”

“Folks,” she continued, “I want to be clear: This is not on President Trump.” (The “not,” by the way, is all-caps on her website.) “No one expected a businessman to completely understand the nuances, the complicated ins and outs of Washington and its legislative process.”

Translation: Donnie’s a good boy, he just fell in with the wrong crowd.

Over at CNN, Trump loyalist Jeffrey Lord also insisted, “This is Speaker Ryan’s fault.”

Back over at Fox (where I am a contributor), Sean Hannity read from the same hymnal: “Let me be very clear here. This is not President Trump’s failure. The president went above and beyond, did everything in his power to get this bill across the finish line.”

There are three interesting things about this new orthodoxy.

First, that’s not what Trump says. On Saturday morning, Trump placed the blame squarely on the House Freedom Caucus, the 30-odd members of Congress who reportedly kept changing their demands until it was clear they were never going to support the American Health Care Act. Nor is there a single quote from a member of Congress echoing this sentiment, even from the Freedom Caucus. The people in the room understand that Ryan, who clearly made some mistakes, nonetheless acted in good faith to move the president’s agenda.

The Pirro crowd, however, can’t endorse the effort to blame the Freedom Caucus, because it’s the heir of True Conservatism. If Trump found himself in opposition to the group, it must be because he was tricked — by Ryan’s irresistible “swagger.”

The second point: Contrary to what Pirro says, she and the other members of Trump’s amen chorus did expect him to work miracles, or at least they said as much. Indeed, during the campaign, Trump said “it will be so easy” to get rid of Obamacare. Trump and his boosters insisted there was nothing he couldn’t do with his Jedi-like negotiating skills and gift for “winning.”

So the only explanation that can rescue them from the agony of cognitive dissonance is to insist that Trump was betrayed.

That’s why Hannity’s claim that Trump did “everything in his power” to get the bill passed is an accidental admission against interest. It concedes the falsity of the idea that Trump is a modern-day, omni-competent Cincinnatus who will lay down his golf bag to save the republic.

Third: It’s a sign of things to come. Some conservatives opposed Trump in the primaries because they — we — didn’t trust him to uphold conservative principles. The Hannitys and Heritage Foundations insisted these fears were misplaced. And on some issues (Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Cabinet appointments, etc.), they’ve been somewhat vindicated.

But now, because of the Freedom Caucus’s stubbornness, Trump is signaling that he might be happier to work with Democrats than deal with the purity caucus — an alliance that certainly would not lead to conservative policies.

Should that come to pass (a difficult task given the polarization of the parties), there will be more talk of betrayal, but the loyalists will doubtless find a way to blame anyone but Trump.

—Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor of National Review. You can write to him by e-mail at goldbergcolumn@gmail.com or via Twitter @JonahNRO. Copyright © 2017 Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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