Ryan to speak at GOP convention ... but not on Trump?

Make that two Republican Party leaders who will take the stage in Cleveland to cheer on  … policy. Ted Cruz got a speaking slot without committing to an endorsement of Donald Trump, at least publicly, last week. Today, Politico’s Playbook reports that House Speaker Paul Ryan — who has offered a tepid public endorsement of Trump — will take the stage for a ten-minute speech, but will stick to the House GOP agenda for the next two years:

House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has at times been a foil to Donald Trump, will address the 2016 Republican Convention next week in Cleveland. The major speech — which Ryan said he is writing himself — will be 10 minutes long, and will focus on the House Republican agenda and “the sharp contrast between Republican ideas and four more years of Obama-like progressive policies; and the need for conservatives to unite around Republican candidates in advance of a critical election,” per an aide to the speaker. Ryan’s staff has been in discussions with the RNC and the Trump campaign over the past 10 days, and the deal was finalized on Thursday after Trump spoke to the House GOP.

–RYAN during an interview in his office said, “I want to talk about our ideas, our solutions and how our party should unite…around our common principles and how we apply those principles to problems.”

Will the non-endorsement matter? In the interview, Ryan may not have cheerleader for Trump, but he’s not having any trouble taking on the role of attack dog against Hillary Clinton:

Make no mistake: Ryan isn’t solely focused on Congress. He’s assiduously following the 2016 campaign, and has begun expressing serious doubt that he can work with Hillary Clinton.

“I think she is actually a liberal progressive — I don’t think she’s faking it,” Ryan said. “I think she is a liberal progressive. And I think she’s sitting atop a party that’s now run by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. This is not the Erskine Bowles 1996 Democratic Party. This is not Alice Rivlin, Erskine Bowles, or Bill Clinton in 1996. This is a Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders party. Our party has moved right, their party has moved really left. I think the common ground, say that you had in the early 90s when I was here as a staffer is nothing like the common ground you have right now.”

Presidential races are binary, or at least they usually are.  This cycle may test that pattern somewhat, but for the moment, the only two people with a realistic chance of winning the election are Trump and Hillary. Attacking Hillary, therefore, counts as supporting Trump, QED. If Ryan rips Hillary a couple of times during the speech, Team Trump should be satisfied with that, even if they’re not entirely happy about it.

Ryan has his eyes on another goal from this convention, which is protecting the House (and perhaps Senate) majorities in Congress. That’s why he’s doing a CNN town-hall event with Jake Tapper tomorrow night to discuss policy, especially his ideas on using conservative principles to combat poverty. With Trump a potential drag on the ticket, Ryan seems ready to launch a parallel campaign to keep Capitol Hill a nice shade of Republican red.

But will Trump actually drag the down-ballot races? So far, there seems to be little evidence of that, US News’ Robert Schlesinger wrote on Friday (quoting me as well):

The first is the near term – November – and to this point, despite Trump’s disapproval rating being 25 percentage points higher than his approval rating and despite the GOP having even worse numbers, the top of the ticket has had remarkably little drag on the down-ballot races thus far. “Not yet,” says Jennifer Duffy of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which handicaps political races. “You still have undefined races in places.” Even top House Democrats admitted as much a month ago over breakfast with reporters. “This election is breaking late,” Kelly Ward, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in June. “The dynamic of what is happening at the top of the ticket is taking a while to solidify,” leaving the House as a lagging indicator. At the end of June, NBC News’ Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Carrie Dann noted that while Democrats could enjoy Clinton’s durable polling lead, “The bad news? It doesn’t look like that advantage is translating into the building of a significant wave – at least not yet.” And two weeks earlier political scientist John Sides reached a largely similar conclusion. (One caveat here: If you look at the average of the congressional generic ballot test, RealClearPolitics has Democrats leading by 2 percentage points, which is bad news for the party because the GOP typically over-performs these polls, but The Huffington Post’s average shows a steadily growing Democratic lead over the last seven months which has now reached a half-dozen percentage points.)

So what gives? I tend to buy a theory proffered by Hot Air’s Ed Morrissey, recently the author of “Going Red,” a book about how the GOP can win the White House: “Donald Trump is such an outsider in the Republican Party that voters see him that way too,” Morrissey says. “It’s just a different phenomenon.” Trump is so sui generis in other words – he’s such a distinct brand – that voters still see him and the conventional GOP as being discrete entities. …

And this trend is being abetted by down-ballot Republicans keeping Trump at a healthy distance. “Even senators who’ve announced some level of support for Trump, such as Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson, New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte and Florida’s Marco Rubio, have gone to great lengths to emphasize their differences with him, not similarities,” Politico’s Burgess Everett and Seung Min Kim wrote late last month. Quips the Cook Report’s Duffy: “I call it the Voldemort endorsement,” referring to the villain from the Harry Potter series. “It goes like this: I support the Republican nominee, he who shall not be named.” The problem many GOPers face is that they need both base GOP voters who love Trump but also more disengaged and swing voters whom he repels to win their races. Duffy adds: “Republican incumbents are out there not talking about the presidential, they’re talking about the importance of a Republican majority in the Senate because they’re going to have to be a check on whoever gets elected,” Clinton or Trump, Duffy notes. “Now when have you heard that message?” This is why so many GOPers are producing excuses for avoiding the Republican National Convention that The Washington Post politely calls “tortured.”

Will that quarantining effect continue when voters start to engage more seriously after the convention? Schlesinger wonders about it too. Ryan, for one, doesn’t want to wait to find out. He’s launching the parallel Congressional campaign early and tying it to the convention — a wise move, one that might keep voters oriented toward putting Trump in his own category through the rest of the election, no matter how hard down-ballot Democrats attempt to marry their opponents to Trump.

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