Politics

Paul Ryan's Tightrope Walk in Cleveland

Can the speaker manage the pro-Trump and never-Trump factions?

Speaker of the House Paul D.Ryan (R-Wis) with his wife Janna Ryan, check the podium. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Speaker Paul D. Ryan will be the conductor of the Donald Trump orchestra at the Republican National Convention, yet the Wisconsin Republican still can't come out and say the billionaire businessman would be a good president.   

"That's not the question we have before us," Ryan said in an interview with NPR last week. "We have a binary choice. It is either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump."  

Ryan, the GOP vice presidential nominee four years ago, then offered what has become the nicest thing he's had to say about the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.   

“I do believe that Donald Trump would be a far better president than Hillary Clinton," he said. "That’s the choice in front of us, and that’s why I’m supporting Donald Trump."  

[ Ryan Finally Says He Will Vote For Trump ] Ryan's refusal to embrace him without qualifications is notable given his position in the party and his role as chair of the Republican National Convention.  

Since late April, the speaker has been walking a tightrope — respecting the GOP voters' chosen nominee and showing that he can work with Trump, while at the same time expressing his distaste for the candidate's bombastic comments and provocative policy proposals so that people don't mistake Trump's views for those of all Republicans.   

[ Ryan Can't Win on Trump ] In many ways, Ryan's own conflict over Trump is emblematic of the divide within the party. Ryan's personal balancing act will only become more difficult as he takes the stage in Cleveland to preside over the nominating process.   

"It’s an awkward position to be in for sure," said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., noting that the speaker doesn't have the luxury of independence. Dent is one of several House Republicans who has not yet endorsed Trump.  

Matt Green, a politics professor at Catholic University, said Ryan faces a unique conundrum because the GOP itself is divided about whether the party should embrace Trump.  

“He’s trying to thread the needle here but it’s extremely difficult,” Green said.  

Despite that dynamic, Trump has asked Ryan to speak at the convention  Tuesday night. As of Thursday, Ryan said he had not started writing the speech or given much consideration to what he would say. Since Ryan has struggled to find positive things to say about Trump, he'll likely talk mostly about House Republicans' "A Better Way" agenda and Trump's support of those policy ideas.   

In that way, Ryan has presented himself as aligned with Trump, saying they agree on most things. Trump's lack of clarity on his policy positions have made it easier for Ryan to carve out similarities.   

“They got an interesting split," said Rep. David Brat, R-Va., one of the more conservative House members. "Trump is way up at the 30,000-foot level. Ryan is down in the weeds doing policy. They don’t necessarily conflict.”  

Ryan's message also must resonate with convention delegates. Bridging the divide between the pro-Trump and never-Trump delegates is no easy task, congressional Republicans said in recent interviews, but they have faith if anyone can do it, it's Ryan.   

"Paul’s up to the task," said Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind. "In many ways, he’s brought these groups together throughout his career."  

Ryan will do fine, Oklahoma Republican Rep. Tom Cole agreed.   

"I think it actually will be very helpful for him to be there,” Cole said. "He’s the right person to be presiding over what will be a very difficult convention.”  

One thing that could help Ryan is Trump's selection of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence  as his running mate, noted Texas Republican Bill Flores, chairman of House Republican Study Committee. Pence is a "solid conservative" that could help bring never-Trump people into the fold, he said.   

 "If anybody can help bridge the divide between the pro-Trump and never-Trump groups, Paul’s the perfect person to do that,” Flores said.  

Asked if anyone can really bridge that divide, he said, “That remains to be seen."  

Ryan hasn't worked that hard at it so far, focusing more of his message on defeating Clinton than on praising Trump. That Ryan won’t say outright Trump would make a good president, yet also endorsed him, is another example of the delicate balance he faces, Green said.  

“You can’t have it both ways,” Green said. “It’s an impossible dilemma.”  

Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King, who has not yet endorsed Trump, said Ryan’s approach is problematic.  

“I’m of the view that once you make the endorsement then you’re essentially accepting what happens afterwards too,” King said. “It’s allowed some division within the party, and I’m hopeful that could be healed in Cleveland.”  

Rema Rahman contributed to this report. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.