Who’s “we,” kemosabe? Twenty-four hours ago, over Ryan’s own objection, House Republicans were all set to revamp the Office of Congressional Ethics. Then Trump logged into Twitter and, three hours later, the plan was scrapped. Members of Ryan’s caucus were eager to reassure the media yesterday that it wasn’t Trump’s influence that made them reconsider, it was the barrage of angry phone calls their offices were getting from grassroots Republicans, but that seems to be a partial explanation at best:
OVERHEARD in the Speaker's lobby: "The guy puts out a tweet and half our conference goes nuts. What are we going to do?"
— Sahil Kapur (@sahilkapur) January 3, 2017
Heard similar comments myself. Rude awakening for some in GOP. https://t.co/00oaN4i4ul
— Carl Hulse (@hillhulse) January 4, 2017
Not only did they reverse course once Trump weighed in, they did so after having defied Ryan — as clear-cut a statement of who really commands their loyalty as you could imagine. Said WaPo, “The first day of the 115th Congress served as a sort of beta test of how some Republicans will react when Trump sics his media power on them. If the most conservative flank tries to buck Trump on a pricey infrastructure deal, how will they handle the heat from Trump’s Twitter feed?” The same goes for tariffs. If Trump and Ryan end up in a staredown over whether to slap a 35 percent tax on GM cars manufactured in Mexico, whom do House Republicans side with? Is there really any doubt?
[Hugh Hewitt]: Do you think we’re headed towards a Smoot-Hawley era?
[Paul Ryan]: No. No, we’re not going to be raising tariffs. We think tax reform is the better way of addressing imbalances, leveling the playing field without starting trade wars, without having the adverse effects that you get with protectionism or trade wars. We think leveling the playing field on taxes, reducing the cost on American businesses by reducing regulatory costs, health care costs, that’s the secret to making American businesses more competitive, not raising prices or raising tariffs, but lowering the costs and leveling the playing field.
If he and Trump don’t end up at loggerheads over tariffs (although it’s hard to see how they won’t), they’ll end up there over infrastructure or Russia or something else. In fact, despite Steve Bannon wanting a blockbuster infrastructure package this year and Jared Kushner telling audiences that Trump’s vision of infrastructure spending is closer to Chuck Schumer’s than to Ryan’s, Ryan suggested to Hewitt this morning that he’s imagining a more modest initiative than Trump’s nationalist fan base is:
HH: So should he get at least 10% of what President Obama got, because I think he could do a hundred times as much with 10% of the money.
PR: Yeah, that’s right, because if you, if it’s done correctly, but more importantly, look, I’m not a Keynesian. I believe that tax reform and regulatory relief are really the key, critical components of our economic growth agenda. And just spending more money in Washington is really not the secret to growing the economy and creating jobs. If it were, we wouldn’t have a jobs problem. This place has been spending plenty of money. I do believe we have a problem with infrastructure, and that needs to be addressed. And infrastructure is critical for the foundation of economic growth so we can get goods and services, you know, moving through our economy. But to suggest that the size of a spending package in Washington will determine how much growth we get in the economy, I just reject the whole premise of that question.
Does his caucus reject it, though? Remember, allegedly, even some of the supposed fiscal conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus are prepared to accept an infrastructure bill that’s only 50 percent paid for in the hopes of keeping President Trump happy.
All of which is to say, what makes Ryan think he’ll win a test of strength with Trump over control of the House when, not if, one finally happens? Eventually he’ll be forced as Speaker to either rubber-stamp Trump’s agenda, betraying his own conservatarian principles in the process, or resign and stand aside for a Speaker who’s more in sync with Trump’s agenda. Increasingly I wonder how long he’ll last before that predicament becomes intolerable for him and he either quits or is forced out by the Trump loyalists in his caucus — especially since there’s every reason to believe that Trump’s White House will be encouraging a revolt behind the scenes. Bannon, remember, is a sworn enemy of Ryan’s who’s been eager to oust him since his Breitbart days. An early conflict with the Speaker, with Trump still in his honeymoon period with Republican voters and possibly at the peak of his political strength, would be the perfect occasion for the White House to show Ryan who’s boss and either neuter his influence over the House or get House Republicans to start thinking about toppling him. Whether it’s infrastructure or tariffs or immigration or something else that serves as the flashpoint is almost academic.
Plus, Trump should want a fight with Ryan because he needs a foil, and Ryan is a much better foil for him than, say, Chuck Schumer is. A Trump/Schumer fight is standard Republican/Democrat conflict; a Trump/Ryan fight is populist-nationalism versus conservatism, which is much sexier to both the right-wing grassroots and to the media. Plus, Trump the showman understands the appeal of having a designated villain. Scott Alexander compares him to Batman in his approach to outfits like GM and Carrier, making a public example of one or two companies on outsourcing even as other companies continue to quietly send jobs abroad:
Trump’s talent is PR, having his finger on the pulse of the media. He can spot things like that guy who raised the price of the toxoplasma drug 1000%, and then he can go in, make some corrupt deal, and get him to back down. He can spot all of those culture war things where the entire country is going to spend a month focused on the same small-town bakery, and by throwing around the entire might of the federal government he can probably make everyone back off and pose together for a nice group photo. If he can get all of these things right (and it will play exactly to his talents), then a majority of people won’t care what policies his administration passes. I think this is a big part of his plan.
There’s an old joke about Batman. Suppose you’re a hypercompetent billionaire in a decaying city, and you want to do something about the crime problem. What’s your best option? Maybe you could to donate money to law-enforcement, or after-school programs for at-risk teens, or urban renewal. Or you could urge your company full of engineering geniuses to invent new police tactics and better security systems. Or you could use your influence as a beloved celebrity to petition the government to pass laws which improve efficiency of the justice system.
Bruce Wayne decided to dress up in a bat costume and personally punch criminals. And we love him for it.
There may be an element of that in his coming war with Ryan too. Economic policy does matter between them — a lot — but if Trump succeeds in toppling the conservative “globalist” Speaker, I bet his fan base will cut him plenty of extra slack if/when he disappoints them in other matters of policy. Punching Ryan is worth something to him. Or maybe Ryan will back down and rubber-stamp Trump’s agenda, deciding that he’d rather be Robin to Trump’s Batman instead of the villain whom Batman punches in the face. He’d be a lock for Speaker for the next four years in that case. It’s all a matter of how willing he is to get punched, because he will get punched. Bannon will see to it.