Leaders in every field should pay close attention to Paul Ryan in weeks and months ahead. America’s highest ranking Republican as House speaker, he’s in an impossible situation facing irreconcilable conflicts between his duty, on the one hand, and his clear loathing for Donald Trump, plus his own ambitions, on the other. In my opinion – though definitely not in everyone’s – he has done an admirable job managing the conflicts so far. He’s worth watching because no matter who wins on Tuesday, those conflicts will only grow more troublesome.
His conflict of the moment was on painful display yesterday when he told a TV interviewer that he had already voted “for our nominee,” refusing to speak Trump’s name. As speaker and as America’s most popular Republican, Ryan has a duty to help other Republicans win their House and Senate races, so he can’t denounce Trump (as Mitt Romney did) and risk turning Trump’s millions of supporters against down-ballot candidates. As speaker, Ryan also has a duty to endorse his party’s nominee, which he has done through tortured rhetoric that combines endorsing with refusing to defend or campaign for Trump.
Now, having voted for Trump, Ryan has done his duty. Doing so conflicts not just with his own views and values but also with his ambition, and this conflict will play out in many ways after the election. Ryan would apparently like to be president. With that as a goal, continuing to serve as speaker offers nothing but trouble.
If Hillary Clinton is president, Ryan might well be able to negotiate a bill that she and enough Congressional Democrats would support on an issue of great importance to him, immigration reform. But cooperating with the Dems on such a hot-button issue could brand him as a hopeless traitor to those Republicans most likely to vote in presidential primaries. Ryan’s situation is no easier under a President Trump, whose seat-of-the-pants positions on immigration, entitlements, trade, and tax policy are virtually the opposite of Ryan’s. So he’d be in the position of continually fighting his own party’s president – not a promising path to the nomination. That’s why some commentators have advised Ryan to get out of the speaker’s job fast.
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But that’s another conflict with duty. Ryan reluctantly accepted the job a year ago after House Republicans forced John Boehner out and it became clear that Ryan was the only person around whom the party could unite. At the time, he suggested that he would want out as soon as the next Congress convened, in January 2017. But now his colleagues overwhelmingly want him to continue. Would he refuse, throwing his party into chaos in order to further his own ambition? Plenty of politicians would do so in an eyeblink, and voters might not care; they’re used to it. But Ryan has not operated that way in the past.
Duty vs. values, duty vs. ambition – these are conflicts that every leader faces. Ryan faces them in particularly dramatic circumstances on an unusually public stage. He is also an intellectual who tries to remain principled, the kind of leader many others would like to emulate. How he navigates his future, for better or worse, will be a leadership case study worth following.