Speaker Paul Ryan made headlines Thursday when he refused to endorse Donald Trump for president. While Trump has now (remarkably) become the clear presumptive nominee, Ryan is “not there yet.”
Before backing Trump, Ryan wants to be sure that “we have a standard bearer that bears our standards”; someone who embraces the party’s agreed-upon “common platform of conservative principles” and will “take[ ] these conservative principles, appl[y] them to the problems and offers solutions to the country . . . .” Trump quickly slapped away Ryan’s attempt to flex establishment muscle. In a three-sentence statement, he countered that he is “not ready to support Speaker Ryan’s agenda.”
The alpha-dog positioning between the GOP’s nominee and its highest-ranking elected official is undoubtedly in part a dispute over Trump’s incendiary rhetoric. But it’s also about whether Trump can be trusted to stick to accepted conservative policy stances.
Throughout the Obama years, the governing blueprint for conservatism has been the series of budget proposals Ryan crafted as House Ways and Means Chairman. The details varied slightly from year to year, but the core instincts remained the same: hack away at social programs while slashing taxes for the rich. He planned to replace Medicare with vouchers to purchase private insurance, and scrap Medicaid for an under-funded block grant to the states. At one time, his budgets planned to partially privatize Social Security, a long-time conservative aspiration. While 69 percent of Ryan’s proposed budget cuts would come from low-income programs like food stamps and Pell Grants, he would nonetheless slash tax rates for wealthy from 39 percent to 25 percent, costing nearly $6 trillion over a decade.
For Republican leaders, Ryan’s budget was the path forward. It would shrink the size of government by converting the key liberal twentieth century social insurance achievements from defined-benefit plans to defined-contribution plans, shifting the costs and risks from government to individual Americans. And it would unburden the so-called “job creators” of trillions of dollars in pesky taxes.
They just needed a president to turn Ryan’s vision into a reality. In a 2012 speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist explained, “All we have to do is replace Obama. [. . .] We don’t need a president to tell us in what direction to go. We know what direction to go. We want the Ryan budget. … We just need a president to sign this stuff.”
All that conservatives needed was the signature from a President Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio—candidates who had pledged fealty to Ryan’s budget. Instead, their only hope for the next four years is Donald J. Trump.
Between his police-state deportation and border plans, unthinking conspiracy mongering, and unrelentingly racist and misogynistic diarrhea of the mouth, it’s easy to lose sight of the shreds of policy ideas lurking in Trump’s campaign. Some of this is because Trump’s policy positions seem subject to revision and all-out abandonment at any given moment. But on a few key issues, he has stuck to his guns in a way that is in direct tension with the agenda championed by Ryan and others.
For instance, in 2013, Trump went to CPAC and told conservatives that they could not make any changes to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid and still expect to win elections. In a book two years earlier, he chastised conservatives for dismissing the social contract embedded in these programs, saying, “that’s not an ‘entitlement,’ that’s honoring a deal. We as a society must also make an ironclad commitment to providing a safety net for those who can’t make one for themselves.”
Trump stood by these positions during the primary. In a debate in Miami, he pledged to “do everything within my power not to touch Social Security, to leave it the way it is.” He boasted that he was the “first & only potential GOP candidate to state there will be no cuts to Social Security, Medicare & Medicaid.” He even supported strengthening Medicare by letting it negotiate drug prices.
Because these are all broadly popular programs, there’s little incentive for Trump to change course now. But each of these positions bucks longstanding conservative goals. In fact, Trump is already backtracking from his own proposal for a massive tax cut for the wealthy—his one policy plank in line with the Ryan budget. “I am not necessarily a huge fan of that,” he explains.
Which makes sense. The philosophy underlying the Ryan budget is supply-side faith in the wealthy as job-creating economic generators. The only job creator that Trump glorifies is himself.
In a Fox News interview Thursday night, Trump reiterated that he isn’t at all interested in signing on to Ryan’s conception of conservative principles. So for Washington conservatives, Trump’s nomination jeopardizes their carefully crafted vision for reform. Ryan’s theory of what ails the country is big government stifling and coddling away growth. Trump’s theory is stupid government getting ripped off at home and abroad. Only one of these theories seems to have struck a chord with voters.