The two Republican leaders meeting Thursday with Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus to see if they can bury their differences and march side by side into this fall’s crucial campaign come together looking for very different things. Donald Trump is all about the transaction, the negotiation and, ultimately, the deal. He has a remarkable ability to craft a message that appeals to voter outrage and frustration, but seems to care little for consistency or the limited government approach that dominates most conservative and Republican voters. He makes it clear that to win he’ll put just about anything on the negotiating table.
That makes House Speaker Paul Ryan and many conventional conservatives nervous. Mr. Ryan likes to win, but that’s not what he’s about. He is probably the most policy-driven House speaker ever. Others merely talk about limiting government, cutting taxes and reforming entitlements, but Mr. Ryan spends most of his waking hours trying to accomplish all three; to him it’s the goal and not the process that’s all-important.
Mr. Ryan wants to know if this year’s nominee shares his values and goals, or if as president he’ll abandon them and try to transform the Republican Party from a flawed but conservative party into a nationalist-populist party interested more in catering to the public’s demands than interests. That’s why he’s said he isn’t yet ready to endorse the presumptive Republican nominee.
Mr. Trump isn’t sure he needs Mr. Ryan or his principles, or even the party itself. After all, he vanquished all comers and has the Republican nomination firmly in hand. It’s time, he seems to believe, for those who opposed him, didn’t take sides or have questions about his policies to cut the crap and get on board for their own good rather than his. They need him, he suggests, far more than he needs them.
Actually, whether they know it or not, they need each other lest they want to shoulder responsibility when their party, Mr. Trump’s candidacy and Mr. Ryan’s ideas go down in flames in November. Some of Mr. Trump’s critics within the party and the conservative movement seem prepared to desert him because they think he can’t win and will drag Republican senators and congressmen down with him while others, like Mr. Ryan, have misgivings about what he might do if he wins.
Writing off Mr. Trump now would be foolish as no one really knows what will happen when he and Hillary Clinton face each other this fall. Several previous Republican nominees have come back from double-digit deficits to defeat flawed Democratic opponents in the past, and the other party has rarely if ever fielded a candidate as flawed as Mrs. Clinton.
On the other hand, Mr. Trump’s conservative and Republican critics have a way of turning their pessimistic assessment of his chances into a reality. They can do that by abandoning him. There is nothing more likely to transform a winnable election into a rout than the specter of significant numbers of leaders of a candidate’s party abandoning his or her candidacy. When that happens, voters the candidate thought could be counted on decide to stay home, vote for the other candidate or look for alternatives.
Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater couldn’t have beat Lyndon Johnson in 1964 any more than South Dakota Sen. George McGovern could have taken down Richard Nixon eight years later, but 1964 and 1972 became blowouts because many leaders of their respective parties abandoned them. Similarly, it is hard to imagine a Nixon victory in 1968 if his opponent hadn’t been gutted by party critics that summer, and Bill Clinton probably wouldn’t have won the White House in 1992 but for the third party candidacy of Ross Perot. Today’s conservatives might want to contemplate that as well as the fact that but for a split within the GOP way back in 1912 Woodrow Wilson would never have escaped New Jersey.
Successful candidates get together with their critics not because they like them, but because they need them to win. Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford never became good friends, but they did what they needed to bring their party back together after Ford beat Reagan in 1976. And after winning the nomination in 1980, Reagan reached out to his most formidable primary opponent to allow him to lead a united party into that fall’s election.
They may be coming at it from different places, but both Mr. Ryan and Mr. Trump know that they lose everything if Mrs. Clinton wins in November, and especially if she wins in a landslide. If that happens, Mr. Trump goes back to New York and Mr. Ryan will see the policies for which he’s fought for so long discarded like so much garbage. If that isn’t enough to get the two men to work out a deal that works for both of them, they, the Republican Party and, ultimately, the rest of us are in trouble.
• David A. Keene is Opinion editor at The Washington Times.