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An Appeal to Paul Ryan

By: Hadley Arkes
October 24, 2016

hroughout the country conservatives of every stripe—pro-lifers, libertarians, serious Catholics, Evangelicals, and Orthodox Jews—have bitten their lips and made their peace with a candidate who is a serial adulterer now run amok, without self-control. They’ve made their decision to stick with him precisely because they take as profoundly serious the differences that now separate the political parties, differences likely to show themselves even more dramatically in yet another administration of the Left. Which is to say, they take those differences far more seriously than Republican “leaders” like the Bushes, who are ready to abandon a nominee they find repulsive, as though this election were simply a choice between two flawed candidates at the top of their parties.

I can hardly blame the Bushes for recoiling from the indignities and insults, the lies and calumnies, thrown off with such abandon by Donald Trump. But accomplished public men are even more obliged than the rest of us to respect the difference, searing at times, between personal wounds and public duties. To take those duties seriously is to raise the question of why the Bushes and people like them do not care as much for the things that other Republicans, ordinary folk, see at stake in 2016:

  • the prospect that medical care will be politically managed at the national level, with an independent commission rationing care, bringing everyone under their control;

  • the specter of federal courts filled at all levels with the professoriate of the Left, ready to install as law those fevered theories that have now become the fashion at the “better” universities; and

  • the crushing effects of Dodd-Frank, creating vast costs in compliance and damping incentives for banks to invest in new businesses.

For the courts, it is not solely the matter of naming the successor to Justice Scalia, though that is massively important in itself. It is also a matter of filling the district and appellate courts, those courts of first instance and the first levels of appeal, the courts that will block challenges to a government running beyond control … or take the lead anew in reshaping what is left of our “culture.” Ordinary folks know, too, that people who have contributed to the Clinton Foundation, or with the right political connections, will not have to endure the queues and waiting lists that will inevitably attend a system of medical care managed by the government. For pro-lifers, can anything be more staggering than the picture of 177 House Democrats voting against punishing surgeons who kill babies that survive abortions? In other words, for the Democrats now, the right to abortion is not confined to pregnancy; it entails nothing less than the right to kill children born alive. Hillary Clinton should now be made to defend or repudiate that position. President Obama vowed that he would veto that bill if it passed. Is she not prepared to do as much in preserving, unimpaired, the most radical “right” to abortion?

How is it that ordinary people care more about these things than the men and women who have offered themselves as the voices for the conservative party in our politics? Those notables now standing by as spectators see these defining issues utterly absent from the words and appeals of their party’s presidential candidate . In the meantime, Mr. Trump has thrown himself into a terminal spiral of defending himself from personal attacks that will never end, for he himself supplies the material endlessly.

Paul Ryan, the Republican Speaker of the House, has made his own judgment clear enough, but in a lacerating way for the party that continues to link them. Ryan himself has acknowledged that link, for he has made clear that his aversion to Trump cannot displace his serious interest in having a president who will indeed sign the conservative measures that Ryan has exerted his genius to shape and enact. How could it possibly be coherent for him to stand aside now without making at least one dramatic effort to remind the public of three or four key issues at stake on November 8th? We need the equivalent of the Morningside Heights Meeting, held by Dwight Eisenhower and Robert Taft in 1952 to bring the warring sides of the Republican party together after the bruising convention that nominated Ike. Such a meeting could help concentrate the public mind, if Ryan were joined by Mitch McConnell, the Majority leader of the Senate, and reminded voters of what a Republican Congress would mean, if it could get its measures signed. It would be all the better if they could be joined by a presidential candidate who recovers his focus. But if Ryan cannot bear Trump’s company, he could use the old device of having an empty chair there. He could remind people that they are counting on the occupant of that chair to do what a Republican nominee has promised to do in completing this mission of the party. If Trump, in a fit of pique, denies that he is that Republican candidate, it may be warrant enough for the party to remove him from the ticket and dial 911 for Mike Pence.

But the likes and dislikes of the matter should no longer count. We are well beyond the question of what any of us would find personally congenial. If Speaker Ryan respects the work he has pursued since coming to Congress, he owes it to the rest of us to remind the voters what is now at stake. Yes, Ryan may sense that the outcome of this election is essentially “baked in.” And yet there is still some volatility, and even if things were indeed fixed in the current, issue-less cast, would that not be all the more reason for someone to stand up in the midst of the whirl, to remind people what our public business is truly about this year—and what it may ever be about?

Lincoln once remarked, in a time of testing strain, that he could not afford to be vengeful or indulge his personal anger. This is the moment for the Republican leadership to show the detachment—and the public commitment—that Republicans throughout the country have managed to summon.