What a peach that Paul Ryan is. Never underestimate his aggressive modesty. Right now, he’s even letting Donald Trump think that he runs the country.
Every member of the House Republican conference found a traditional red “Make America Great Again” hat waiting on their seats Tuesday morning before a Capitol Hill meeting. “Welcome to the dawn of a new unified Republican government,” Ryan announced at a news conference. “This will be a government focused on turning President-elect Trump’s victory into real progress for the American people.”
I like both of those sentences. The first, because he sounds like he’s moments from giving the order to destroy a planet with the Death Star. And the second is a nifty parse. He pays proper deference to “President-elect Trump’s victory,” but not to Trump’s vision. He situates Trump’s victory as the last puzzle piece Republicans needed to achieve what Ryan would categorize as “real progress for the American people.” He speaks of what the new “government” will do as though we’re in a parliamentary system. That would make Donald Trump the figurehead monarch, and Paul Ryan the prime minister. Let Trump be head of state, if that flatters him. Ryan will gladly assume head of government.
The head of government has done his homework and knows what he wants to achieve, while the head of state is still in the period of processing that he’s the head of state.
Ryan has the legislative strategy, the legislative numbers, and the legislation itself ready to go. Sure, there may be a few procedural hiccups along the way—nothing his procedural fixer Mitch McConnell can’t take care of in the Senate, either through reconciliation or merely by eliminating the filibuster—and he’ll have his agenda ready for President-elect Trump’s signature by spring break or thereabouts. Ryan won’t need Democratic help. “The conservative policy agenda is designed to not require any Democratic votes,” as the Roosevelt Institute’s Mike Konczal writes. “It’s been engineered to pass through reconciliation on a party line vote. All those times liberals made fun of Republicans for passing party-line bills that would get vetoed Republicans were simply doing test runs for what they would do with unified government, testing the boundaries of their members and the institutions themselves.” The test runs were productive. Now it’s time to blow up some goddamn planets.
The contrast in preparedness with Trump’s team is striking. First: What is Trump’s team right now, beyond the few communications and strategy folks he’ll carry over from the campaign? Even the team that’s supposed to pick the team, as of Tuesday morning, was in chaos. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who had for months led the presidential transition effort, has been booted. (All of the appointee vetting Christie’s team had done went out the window when Trump decided to use the appointments process as a punishment-and-reward process.) Former Rep. Mike Rogers, one of the supposed adults in the room who had been handling the national security transition, resigned Tuesday morning. No one from the transition team appears to have gotten in touch with a minor bureau called the “Department of Defense” yet. The Trump team does not know what it’s doing. The head of state is not familiar with the demands of the job, and so the demands of the job will flow elsewhere. Vice President–elect Mike Pence and incoming chief of staff Reince Priebus are set to take over all of these things—the daily management of the presidency, that is—if they ever get their paperwork submitted. And Priebus and Pence are each allies of Paul Ryan, who knows what he’s doing.
Trump did sign off on much of this arrangement early in the process. As the New York Times Magazine reported in October, Trump delegated the better part of his would-be power to Ryan in a May 12 meeting, shortly after Trump had become the presumptive nominee. Ryan briefed Trump on “federal budgetary issues,” sharing “a sheaf of charts relating to unfunded liabilities, the long-term debt problem and the growing share of mandatory spending in federal outlays.” Trump got bored very quickly and “said that Ryan obviously knew what he was talking about and would therefore be in charge of managing ‘this stuff’ in a Trump administration.”
“This stuff” is the steering wheel of the country, and our president-elect wants to sleep in the passenger seat while someone else drives. He just needs to be assured that monies for his high-ticket rhetorical priorities, like the wall, are appropriated, and then he’ll sign by the X when he’s awoken. The only hope for anyone not smitten with the Ryan agenda is that Trump’s penchant for retribution—his most animating force—prompts him to veto several of Ryan’s bills solely to hurt Ryan’s feelings. We can probably expect one of these big troll vetoes just to settle the score, like a pitcher beaning a hitter. And then the game will go on.
Our national obsession with the presidency blinds our ability to track power. Much of the discussion about how Ryan had wounded himself by taking the speakership last year focused on the gig as a poor launch pad for the presidency. What would he need the presidency for, though? He already runs the country.