Paul Ryan’s collision with Donald Trump has been building for years

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent

Donald Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan met for the first time Thursday in a much-anticipated meeting to address the Republican party rift over the former’s position as presumptive nominee. Yahoo Senior Politics Correspondent Jon Ward discussed the Trump-Ryan meet live at 11:15 a.m. ET with Global News Anchor Katie Couric.

About a month before Paul Ryan became the Republican Party’s vice presidential nominee in the summer of 2012, then Sen. Tom Coburn mentioned Ryan’s name unprompted in the course of a wide-ranging conversation in his Capitol Hill office.

“I had this conversation with Paul Ryan last night,” the Oklahoma senator, who retired in 2014, told me. “[Ryan] said, ‘Your book ‘Breach of Trust’ changed totally the way I operate.‘”

Coburn’s book, subtitled “How Washington Turns Outsiders into Insiders,” railed against careerism in Congress that leads senators and representatives to focus year in and year out on getting reelected, rather than fixing the country’s problems.

Coburn wrote the book in 2003, and said the problem had only grown worse since then. “I am disgusted with Washington,” he told me.

But Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, was to Coburn a rare bright spot on the horizon. Ryan had already established a reputation for putting his neck out on major issues by then. He first proposed major changes to Medicare and Social Security in 2008 — and then did so again every year after that. He was obsessed with the impact of these programs on the national debt, as was Coburn.

For years, Republican leaders in Congress ignored Ryan’s “roadmap” because its call to radically overhaul popular entitlement programs was seen as too politically risky, even if it only affected future and not current beneficiaries.

By 2012, however, Ryan had succeeded in pushing his proposals long enough and hard enough that his party could no longer ignore them. They became part of the GOP’s budget plan in that presidential year, thanks in part to the energy and support of a new class of tea party House members.

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan speaks at a news conference following a closed Republican Party conference on Capitol Hill, May 11, 2016. (Photo: Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Ryan had gotten a taste of what it meant to push controversial ideas through the political process, and to take on his own party, so he felt emboldened to do it even more forcefully, Coburn said.

“He said, ‘I read your book, ‘Breach of Trust,’ and I said, ‘I’m tired of living the lie. I want to be free.’ So I’m going to do what I think and defend what I think, even if it’s painful,” Coburn recounted.

A month later, Ryan was plucked from the relative obscurity of Congress and placed under the searing lights of the national stage when Mitt Romney made him his running mate.

Ryan’s calling card was his focus on budget and entitlement matters. But his four-month stint as a national candidate convinced him of the need for the GOP to do more to reach voters outside the party’s narrow traditional constituency of older, wealthier, white voters.

When Ryan talked about expanding the party, he thought largely of minority voters, who represent the demographic future of the country. Other conservatives argued the party could or should seek to win over disaffected white working-class voters who did not feel at home in either the Democratic or Republican parties.

Donald Trump, of course, is now the Republican nominee for president, having won over voters who resent free trade, are angry about illegal immigration and hate the Washington elite.

Ryan is quickly becoming public enemy No. 1 for Trump’s outrage-fueled supporters, after his refusal to initially back the businessman and former reality TV star. Ryan’s resistance is built on his concern that Trump has no regard for constitutional checks on the power of the presidency, and the two will hash out their differences today in a meeting at the Republican National Committee.

2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan await election results in Richmond Heights, Ohio, on November 6, 2012. (Photo: Brian Snyder/Reuters)

But Ryan also has clearly stated that Trump is pushing the party’s message and identity in a direction that is the opposite of where Ryan thinks it should go. And this is a battle that Ryan has been fighting within his own party for years before Trump stepped onto the scene. Ryan has preached a politics of optimism, bipartisan compromise on issues like trade and immigration and outreach to nontraditional Republican voters.

From 2013 to 2015, he stood apart from the Republican presidential hopefuls in Congress — such as Sen. Marco Rubio, Sen. Rand Paul and Sen. Ted Cruz — who often seemed to be competing for who could demonstrate the most ideological purity or denounce President Obama the loudest.

The first test for Ryan came right after the 2012 election, when President Obama pushed to raise tax rates for the highest earners, resulting in a showdown over what became known as the “fiscal cliff” deal.

Ryan, who would not decide against running for president until two years later, put some distance between himself from Rubio and Paul by voting for the deal, saying it protected most Americans from tax increases.

“As elected officials, we have a duty to apply our principles to the realities of governing. And we must exercise prudence,” he said. Rubio, meanwhile, wanted to maintain ideological purity on taxes, and was able to do so because there were enough votes to pass the deal without his support.

Ryan worked for immigration reform in 2013 as well, as did Rubio. But after the deal fell apart that summer, Ryan continued to work behind the scenes to try to reach a deal, while Rubio abandoned the effort. And when newly arrived Sen. Ted Cruz led a crusade to shut down the government over the president’s refusal to repeal his own health care law, Ryan publicly disagreed with that approach, while Rubio joined it.

Trump, for his part, spoke out against the immigration reform effort, amplifying the argument that most undocumented immigrants were viewed by Democrats simply as new liberal voters. He also in 2013 blasted the idea of entitlement reform, which, until Ryan began to focus on poverty that year, had been his signature issue.

“If you think you are going to change very substantially for the worse Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security in any substantial way, and at the same time you think you are going to win elections, it just really is not going to happen,” Trump said at the Conservative Action Political Conference in 2013. He argued that the U.S. could grow its economy fast enough to outpace its debt obligations — the very thing that Ryan had spent years arguing with charts and graphs was impossible.

Paul Ryan, then the House budget committee chairman, briefs Republican committee members before unveiling the 2013 budget plan on Capitol Hill in March 2012. (Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Ryan’s growing emphasis on restoring low-income, high-crime communities was an acknowledgement, in its own way, that Trump had a point. He had seen in 2012 that a message based on accounting did not move votes or hearts like one based on aspiration. The T-shirts with Ryan’s face on it, over the word “Math,” in a parody of the Obama “Hope” portrait, did not quite catch on.

Ryan came to believe that his party had to reach people emotionally, not just rationally. He either did not anticipate the prospect of a presidential candidate who tapped into rage rather than hope, or refused to because he found the idea repugnant.

Ryan was even concerned for his own close friend, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, during Walker’s 2014 reelection campaign. Ryan thought Walker’s message was too focused on the past, not aspirational enough, and too negative.

In his book that came out in the summer of 2014, Ryan wrote that the Republican Party had “become lazy and complacent.”

“Instead of doing the hard work of persuading people, we’ve opted for the easy route, focusing our attention on communities where people already agree with us and trying to turn out the base,” Ryan wrote. “Preaching to the choir isn’t working, and by the way, the choir is shrinking.”

Trump’s candidacy has turned out new white working-class voters, and his message has so far been the opposite of what Ryan believes the GOP should stand for. Trump has channeled voter anger toward scapegoats: Mexican immigrants, refugees from the Middle East and all adherents of the Muslim faith, the rich, political insiders, protesters, the media and others.

Ryan believes this approach does little to help lead the country toward solutions, though he has admitted that many in his party did not realize the depth of voter frustration.

“I think there’s a bit of humility that each of us needs, especially leaders in Congress, which is, he tapped into something in this country that was very powerful, and people are sending a message to Washington that we need to learn from and listen to,” Ryan said last week when announcing on CNN that he would not for the time being support Trump’s candidacy.

By the time Ryan was drafted into the speakership last fall after former Speaker John Boehner’s retirement, he was already despised by some conservatives who didn’t think he fought hard enough against Democrats. But Ryan had become convinced that the way to both solve problems facing the country and keep building up the Republican Party was to let the hardliners take their shots while working incrementally to achieve the possible rather than the ideal.

House Speaker Paul Ryan at the State of the Union address, January 12, 2016. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

He’s been freed up to do so by the fact that the speakership is a position he never sought or really wanted. But Boehner and others convinced Ryan that it was his duty as a Catholic and an American to fall on his sword. And Ryan has come to embrace that idea.

His public confrontation with Trump, as politely conducted as it has been so far, is a showdown over who controls the Republican Party, and what the party stands for. With seven states yet to hold primaries, Trump already has received more votes (10.7 million) than Mitt Romney did in the entire 2012 primary (10 million). But it’s also true that 17 million Republican primary voters cast ballots for someone other than Trump.

After Trump won the Indiana primary on May 3 and his last two rivals ended their campaigns, he initially seemed to think the GOP was like a property he had bought and now fully controlled, GOP insiders who have interacted with him said. But Ryan’s repudiation has put Trump on notice that consolidating power and control of the party will take a more delicate touch, with deference shown toward the party’s core beliefs and its many stakeholders.

How Trump navigates the meeting Thursday, and whatever comes after, one insider said, will determine whether he continues to face revolt and the possibility of open defiance by party members at the Republican convention in July, or whether he can solidify his footing at the top of the party apparatus.