Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Paul Ryan's Job Just Keeps Getting Harder

The luck of the Irish is not smiling on Paul Ryan. Last week, I noted that the probable loss of Donald Trump in the presidential race has placed Ryan in an increasingly precarious position. If Hillary Clinton is the next president and the Democrats gain control of the Senate, responsibility for leading the partisan opposition will fall to Ryan (assuming that he remains speaker of the House). Ryan will then face the challenge of negotiating regular bipartisan agreements with Clinton and Senate Democrats to fund the government and increase the national debt ceiling while simultaneously avoiding threats to his leadership from the hard-liners in the House Freedom Caucus—a difficult task that his predecessor John Boehner ultimately found impossible to achieve.

Unfortunately for Ryan, things just keep getting worse by the day:

1. Trump's position in the polls continues to slide in the wake of the well-publicized assault charges against him. A few surveys released yesterday even suggested that the margin between Clinton and Trump in the national popular vote is flirting with double digits, while the Clinton campaign hinted at a tactical offensive into a few traditionally red states that amounts to a declaration of victory three weeks before Election Day. This decline doesn't have much of an effect on Trump's already-slim chances of winning, but it does increase the likelihood of significant Republican losses in House elections that could leave any future majority with a very narrow margin of control—further enhancing the leverage of the Freedom Caucus over Ryan's speakership.

2. Trump has taken to repeatedly attacking Ryan personally for distancing himself from the presidential ticket, even accusing Ryan of hoping for a Trump defeat so that he could run for president himself in 2020. Ryan might not care too much about what Trump personally thinks of him, but it doesn't help his own future standing in the Republican Party to be charged with disloyalty to the GOP's presidential standard-bearer.

3. Trump's increasingly vociferous claims that a "rigged" electoral system is poised to deny him the presidency suggest that he, or at the very least many of his supporters, will not accept the legitimacy of a Clinton victory in November—which would in turn lead to demands on Republican elected officials to demonstrate their own thorough rejection of the new president. With 84 percent of Trump supporters in Florida—presumably representative of the national party—agreeing that Clinton should be in jail, it's near-certain that some conservatives will pressure Ryan and other Republican congressional leaders to initiate impeachment proceedings against a future President Clinton just as they did for the last President Clinton. Ryan is unlikely to view impeachment as a smart political move, but resisting it may not be a costless act for him within the GOP.

The Republican base is poised for a volcanic eruption if Clinton wins this election, and it will be difficult for Ryan to avoid sustaining some of the damage. Ryan has already signaled that he will respond to a second Clinton presidency by attempting to recalibrate the grounds of Republican opposition, exchanging Trumpist ultra-nationalism for more intellectually-styled lines of attack that paint Clinton as a big-government leftist who is hostile to individual liberty. But it will be difficult for Ryan to lead any larger reform effort within the GOP that successfully marginalizes the party's rightmost fringe given his own growing political vulnerability. As things stand now, he'll need a little luck just to keep his current job for the next four years.