The Center for Public Integrity came out with a blockbuster report on Monday describing how journalists are way, way too poor to influence elections with their money. A ragtag group of television reviewers and restaurant critics have combined to add almost $400,000 to the campaign coffers of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump (with Clinton winning the lion’s share of this largesse), as Dave Levinthal and Michael Beckel detail. In a billion-dollar election, that puts “journalists” somewhere near “accounting error” in terms of their contributions.
But that doesn’t mean journalists aren’t good political donors ― you just have to account for the stuff they give away for free. And one big beneficiary of such in-kind offerings has been beleaguered House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
In case you’ve not been keeping up with the latest in Ryaniana, the Wisconsin representative and former vice presidential nominee has found himself in another round of back-and-forth sparring with his party’s nominee. Ryan desperately wants the presidential race to be something he no longer needs to think about, because his party’s standard-bearer is an odious lunatic and because the speaker has been attempting to run a parallel Republican campaign from the safety of his office. Trump, however, won’t let him go and has even worked Ryan into his larger mythology of a “rigged” election, painting him as one more party to a “sinister deal.”
The straight story here, of course, is that Paul Ryan brought all of this upon himself. By offering Trump his endorsement ― a move that he’d have cause to regret within hours ― he invited the vampire into his home. And throughout his dance of death with the candidate, Ryan has desperately tried to make it work. As recently as Oct. 7, he was planning to appear on the stump with Trump, only to rescind the invitation when it became clear that Trump’s “grab her by the pussy” comment wasn’t going to be quickly swept away by the news cycle.
In other words, Ryan has made poor choices and taken ill-advised actions. Fortunately for him, he’s receiving his traditional round of fluffing from the media, who are depicting him as a noble sufferer ― unfairly victimized by Trump but ultimately responsible for nothing ― and who are giving him immense credit for finding a way to exist in the liminal space between not quite endorsing Trump and not quite rescinding that endorsement either.
Take, for example, Jennifer Steinhauer’s New York Times piece from over the weekend, “For Paul Ryan, a Long, Labored Path Leading Away From Donald Trump.” Which sounds like Ryan had, you know, broken with Trump. That’s not the case! But the larger argument being made is that Ryan has ended up a casualty to cruel fate:
He didn’t see it coming.
Speaker Paul D. Ryan was in a hotel room in Cincinnati last May when he learned that Donald J. Trump — a man he barely knew, with no institutional ties to his party and a mouth that had already clacked his nerves — had secured the Republican nomination for president.
Huh, what now? He didn’t see Trump coming? From as far back as ‘Mexicans are sending rapists’? And we’re to believe that in May, Trump’s ascension still caught him unawares? By May, the only non-Trump nomination options that were left were the desperate ones ― the aborted Cruz-Kasich team-up plan or a massive procedural fight at the very convention over which Ryan was obligated to preside.
The Times piece goes on to describe Ryan as having been plunged into a “singular abyss,” as if something other than his passivity put him there. Ryan absorbs the “unsparing ... disparagement” from Trump and makes his tepid objections known through spokespersons. He supposedly came to learn the hard way that Trump doesn’t “deal in good faith” when Trump falsely claimed to have earned Ryan’s endorsement before it was actually offered (making Ryan one of the last people to realize that Trump doesn’t “deal in good faith”). After that, Ryan chose to take Trump’s selection of running mate Mike Pence as a “bright spot” that surely represented a change in tone.
Overall, Ryan kept up a campaign of pretending Trump didn’t exist, until such time as that became untenable: the release of the 2005 video in which the real estate mogul lewdly promoted sexual assault as a perk of fame. As punishment, Trump was disinvited from a Wisconsin rally, but that’s as far as Ryan was willing to push things. Per Steinhauer:
Mr. Ryan agonized over his options. Ultimately, he chose not to withdraw his endorsement to keep Republicans motivated to vote, which still angered some of his conference. “I think they ask far too much of the speaker,” said Representative Jason Chaffetz, Republican of Utah, who has renounced Mr. Trump. “His job is to help House Republicans. Period.”
Several of Chaffetz’s colleagues briefly followed his lead, only to re-endorse Trump after a few hours of courage. If only they had someone setting an example to follow!
But Ryan has clearly decided to ride this one out by ignoring Trump and putting on a happy face, all the while never indicating which of his charges are doing right by their party and country: the ones who have broken with Trump, the ones who have attached themselves to Trump, or the ones trying to have it both ways. “Just please vote the straight GOP ticket, anyway” is Ryan’s only position.
And it’s all so sad, because ― as Steinhauer ruefully reports ― after all the dust has settled, his own party may not let him stay on as speaker:
If Mr. Trump is defeated on Nov. 8 — as Mr. Ryan has all but conceded — but Republicans maintain their House majority, it will fall largely to Mr. Ryan to piece the rubble of his party back together.
There is, of course, the question of whether House members would let him do so.
It’s hard to imagine that Ryan would have any trouble convincing his fellow House colleagues to keep him on, what with all this authoritative command he is showing.
At this point, the only thing that’s keeping Ryan from being seen as a feckless, failed invertebrate is the media’s determined campaign to paint him as the tragic figure in all of this. Tuesday morning’s Politico Playbook, for example, literally describes Ryan as Trump’s “fall guy,” bullied by the nominee’s sneering remarks. As Playbook puts it:
THIS IS STUNNING. Trump is essentially accusing the speaker of the House of sabotaging his campaign to benefit his own political future. (We think it’s an absurd argument.)
It is an absurd argument, but only because the Trump campaign is the one thing Ryan isn’t sabotaging for the sake of his political future. Yet Playbook maintains that Ryan has somehow become fortune’s unwitting fool in this whole escapade, ignoring the fact that he’s been one of Trump’s principal enablers:
STEP BACK: There’s been a lot of chatter over the last few days about whether Ryan did the right thing by speaking out against Trump. Why is he always the scold, people have asked? His handling of Trump will be dissected plenty over the next few months. Ryan has an incredibly complicated job and has to balance the needs of 245 other Republicans, many of whom wanted cover to break with Trump. But there’s no question he’s now bearing the brunt of the decision. We’re not going to play the can-he-win-the-speakership-again game. There are far too many variables at play, like a) how much Trump loses by and b) what the margin is in the House. But Trump and his allies are signaling a long fight against Ryan. Put it all together, and you come up with a pretty simple question: Why would Ryan want to become speaker again?
Why should anyone care if Ryan becomes speaker again? How is that a going concern? He had his chance to put down his marker and opted to refrain from doing so, preferring to pretend that this is all some bad dream from which he’ll shake himself when the morning comes.
Ryan has been the sort of statesman who offers up his strongest statements while timidly backing out the door, leaving everyone left in the room wondering if he was even there in the first place. And then he’s off to shelter behind closed doors, making another video about tax cuts as a solo act of Speaker of the House cosplay.
It’s a real curiosity: In a town where fanciful notions of “leadership” are venerated even when doing so flies in the face of reason, Paul Ryan has emerged as the one figure of real status who has been given a pass from all of that. Typically, you’d expect the media to light him on fire for both his non-endorsement endorsement and his subsequent non-unendorsement unendorsing of Trump.
But no. He gets credited by The New York Times with making a break he hasn’t made. He earns the concern of Politico over whether he’ll keep a job that he’s been avoiding doing. He’s been a flailing, indecisive mess and a big reason why his party ― and the country― has been gravely imperiled by Trump. But it seems like the press is going to allow Ryan to go down as this election cycle’s St. Sebastian. And sure, Ryan’s fantastic abs have been shot up with metaphorical arrows, but he’s not earned a martyrdom. That’s the media’s donation.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.