He fights

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2016/06/27/he-fights/

“I can’t spare this man,” President Abraham Lincoln noted about General Ulysses Grant, “he fights.”

In some ways, that represents the views of grassroots Republicans about Donald Trump. They may not agree with Trump on the particulars of various issues. They probably feel uncomfortable when his rhetoric turns from the political to the personal.  Many of his business deals and life choices probably unnerve them. Deep down, they may even question the degree of his commitment to conservatism or the GOP. But despite it all, they like him because, as Lincoln said of Grant in much graver circumstances, “he fights.”

Trump embodies a kind of battling spirit, a gut-level emotional thrust that sometimes emulates honorable sports, business, or political competition, and at other times emanates from less admirable personal pique. This kind of appeal alienates much of the conservative intelligentsia, and causes establishment Republicans to “head for the hills.” The establishment looks for the kind of sober predictability that Trump rarely offers.

Conservative pundits, professors, and establishment types see their interests secured by the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.  Ryan and Trump are nearly exact opposites. One is cerebral, thoughtful, and prudent; the other blunt and blustery. One is a grinder, who worked his way up; the other a born-to-wealth swashbuckler. Ryan knows the complex details of the issues better than anyone; Trump fancies himself a quick study. Ryan has served most of his adult life in government; Trump has dedicated his life to business and later doubled as a television personality. Ryan proposes fully thought-out reforms that impress think tank experts and media talking heads; Trump blasts out bumper stickers that rally middle America. Ryan seeks to persuade your mind; Trump wants to own your heart.

If Paul Ryan squeezed his expansive thoughts into a single slogan, it might be something like: “Reform big government, now.” Trump has already etched two catchphrases into America’s consciousness. As businessman-television star, he memorably pointed at The Apprentice contestants: “You’re fired.” As presidential candidate, he claims that he will “make America great again.”

Given those contrasts, it’s perhaps easier to understand why Trump in on the verge of the Republican presidential nomination than why Ryan chose not to run at all.

Before the race began, a Ryan candidacy had many advantages. In 2012, Ryan campaigned as vice presidential running mate to Mitt Romney. He debated Vice President Joe Biden in front of a national television audience. Ryan was well-known and well-liked in GOP circles across America, where he had a natural base of support. Had he announced, Ryan would have catapulted to the very top tier of the 2016 presidential field. Instead, he decided to stay on the sidelines, perhaps partly out of deference toward fellow Wisconsinite, Governor Scott Walker.

Now, Ryan and Trump stand at the pinnacles of their careers. Ryan has risen to the office of Speaker of the House, and Trump has bested all rivals in the Republican presidential sweepstakes. They both stare down different political problems; yet they are both uncomfortably tethered to each other until the November election. Ryan is a lock for reelection to his familiar Washington congressional seat next year. Trump could be sitting at the desk in the Oval Office, or he might be attending ribbon-cutting ceremonies at “the best golf courses in the world.”

Trump’s immediate goal is to unite the Republican Party by broadening his political appeal, restraining his inclination to rhetorical overkill, and sounding more presidential. After recent outbursts by House Democrats, Speaker Ryan is facing the opposite problem. He may need to loosen his well-learned self-discipline and borrow a few of Trump’s natural characteristics.

Challenging Speaker Ryan’s authority, Democrat representatives recently staged a “sit-in” on the House floor beginning Wednesday morning June 22. Among the organizers was Massachusetts 5th District Congresswoman Katherine Clark, whose participation garnered national media attention. Another local political star, Senator Elizabeth Warren, momentarily grabbed the spotlight by delivering Dunkin Donuts to her fellow Democrats on Wednesday evening, as they prepared to hold the House floor overnight. They refused to leave unless Ryan surrendered to their demands for votes on restrictive gun control measures. This represented a direct assault on the prerogatives of the Speaker of the House, who controls the flow of legislation and holds authority to “preserve order and decorum” in the chamber.

Apparently the Democrats view Ryan’s openness, civility, and propriety as signs of weakness. They executed an unprecedented power-play, attempting to wrest control of the House from the 46-year old Ryan, the youngest Speaker since the late 19th Century. One can only imagine how a Speaker Sam Rayburn or a Speaker Tip O’Neill would have reacted to an attempt by a rump minority of Republicans to commandeer the House floor. In the pre-digital age, those crusty Speakers likely would have employed something more vigorous than a “tweet-length” statement.

Yet, a tweet was Ryan’s initial reaction. On Wednesday, he tweeted: “The sit-in by House Democrats is nothing more than a publicity stunt.” In addition to a tweet, his measured response indicated that “we are not going to allow stunts like this to stop us from carrying out the people’s business.”

By underplaying the Democrat threat, Ryan played right into their hands. They belittled his tweet, and dug in for a long protest. They were heard shouting “Shame” and “No bill, no break.” Various Democrats commented about “rightful indignation” and “we are going to win this struggle,” while comparing Ryan’s treatment of the House minority to “the back of the bus.”

To this point as a political figure, Ryan has presented the image of an analytical college professor running a seminar in good government that has no chance of being implemented in the short run. But now that Ryan is Speaker, this aggressive Democrat action directly challenges his leadership and his ability to “preserve order and decorum.” He is charged with maintaining the traditions of the House set by those Speakers who proceeded him: Henry Clay, James K. Polk, Joseph Cannon, John Nance Garner, Joseph Martin, and John McCormack, to name a few. Should Ryan fall short and Democrats continually embarrass him, he will be perceived as a failure.

Ryan adjourned the House early Thursday morning, after pushing through funding for the military and for combating the Zika virus. The Democrats continued their 25-hour disturbance until Thursday afternoon. They were widely reported as “declaring victory” and “being jubilant.” Some Democrats threatened more such disorderly tactics in the future.

While juggling his demanding House obligations, Ryan must awkwardly partner with Trump for the next four months. While it’s hard to imagine the Speaker and Trump seeing eye-to-eye on such issues as Social Security, international trade, or immigration, their futures are closely linked.  Knowing that their fates intertwine, perhaps each can learn something from the other. By taking a cue from Ryan’s serious, level headed attitude, Trump will add a bit of gravitas to a personality that alternatively appears decisive and resolute or cartoonish and blustery.  And in dealing with unruly House Democrats, Speaker Ryan should remember why Trump has so much appeal:  He fights.

Joseph Tortelli

Joseph Tortelli

Joseph Tortelli is a freelancer writer. Read his past columns here.