Watching House Speaker Paul Ryan’s CNN town hall event last night, it was easy at times to forget just how much hostility he endured during the 2016 campaign from his own party’s presidential nominee.
Donald Trump won a shock victory in Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin—on his way toward tipping the Rust Belt, and with it, the election itself—by indicting a corporate-friendly globalism he charged the young Republican leader with championing at the expense of American workers. Ryan winked at their scuffles a couple times during CNN’s hour-long event. But he mostly sought to elide the gulf between his vision of economic stewardship and Trump’s, emphasizing instead all the places they’ll make common cause—on reforming taxes, immigration and healthcare.
Even on their most glaring divergence, over free trade, Ryan suggested they’re in lockstep, agreeing on the need for “good” trade deals.
“Of all the people who’ve acceded to the presidency who are negotiators, Donald Trump’s that,” Ryan said in response to a question from a tool manufacturer encouraged by Trump’s protectionism. “And I believe that he has the tools and the skills to go out and get good agreements to get other countries to play by our rules so we have a level playing field.”
No matter that Ryan expended considerable effort in the last Congress trying to advance the Trans Pacific Partnership, a pact that Trump denounced on the trail as a “disaster” that would “rape our country.”
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Ryan went on to argue that the tax reform he’s long sought will also be instrumental in restoring American manufacturing. Making the case for a border adjustment tax, he said the U.S. code disadvantages the Harley-Davidson plant in Milwaukee, for example, by imposing a levy on its exports, where our competitors apply that tax instead to foreign-made imports. Ryan made the same argument in the run-up to his August primary. He romped in that race, but Trump drew national attention to it by openly flirting with endorsing Ryan’s no-name opponent.
And Breitbart News, the voice of the alt-right id that fanned Trump’s candidacy, chronicled Ryan’s last day on the trail—in which he invoked the same Harley-Davidson example, in a visit to a tool manufacturing plant—under the headline, “Eleventh Hour: Paul Ryan Scrambles to Explain Away Trade Policy Effects on Wisconsin Workers.” A week later, Breitbart’s then-executive chairman, Steve Bannon, joined the Trump campaign as its new chief strategist.
In one regard, at least, the Trump transition has been surprisingly placid. His campaign exploded decades of conservative economic orthodoxy, yet its avatars in what remains of the Republican establishment, Ryan included, have fallen quickly in line behind him. That’s papered over years of brewing tension within the GOP: Two years ago, John Boehner suffered the biggest intraparty defection against a speaker's reelection in more than 150 years when 25 Republicans opposed him; earlier this month, Ryan was reelected as Boehner’s successor with the support of all but one of his fellow Republicans.
But single-party rule promises to expose those fault lines again. As one former House Republican leadership aide puts it: “I cannot wait for the day Paul Ryan decides that Trump is for something in tax reform that’s not part of his vision for America. I have no doubt that Bannon is just waiting to fillet him.”
It’s easy to talk about a shared mission. Translating it into policy will be a lot trickier.