Brian Beutler at the New Republic dissects Ryan's ambitions to get the answer. Snippets follow.
Ryan still wants to devolve Medicare into a subsidized system of competition between insurance carriers, but only for seniors in the distant future. He still wants to hand Medicaid over to the states and slash its budgets by hundreds of billions of dollars. He still wants to cut income tax rates for the wealthy to about a third of their current level. He still wants to spend lavishly on the military. But when asked how to pay for it all, he’s exceedingly vague. He promises to cut tax expenditures, but doesn’t say how or which ones. He promises to slash the domestic discretionary budget (which disproportionately benefits the poor), but won’t say which programs, or by how much.
All of that was to be decided after Republicans won the White House. That was Ryan’s game plan when he was budget chairman; it remained his game plan as the GOP’s vice presidential nominee in 2012. And the plan seemed to be well within reach when Republicans finally consolidated control of Congress in 2015, and a raft of talented candidates were lining up to fill the last piece of the puzzle: the presidency.
Donald Trump’s GOP presidential primary victory has almost surely blown up Ryan’s plans. Trump has the Republican Party poised not just to lose the White House, but to suffer a devastating down-ballot wipeout that could conceivably end the GOP’s congressional majority. And even if he weren’t a generationally bad candidate, Trump has shown little interest in Ryan’s fiscal agenda. “This is called the Republican Party, it’s not called the Conservative Party,” he reminded the conservative movement last month.
But Ryan has been unable to accept that reality has departed irrevocably from his expectations.
And that is why he finds himself lashed to the mast of the sinking ship Trump.
It’s impossible to fully grasp Ryan’s thinking without understanding how close he feels he’s come to realizing a decades-old dream. That dream, as Grover Norquist told CPAC four years ago, culminates with the election of a figurehead. “We are not auditioning for fearless leader. We don’t need a president to tell us in what direction to go. We know what direction to go. We want the Ryan budget...We just need a president to sign this stuff. We don’t need someone to think it up or design it. The leadership now for the modern conservative movement for the next 20 years will be coming out of the House and the Senate...Pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen to become president of the United States.”
Ryan may not imagine a president’s obligations to be quite so perfunctory, but he agrees that the main purpose of electing a Republican president is to fulfill that final, unthinking step in the legislative process. Trump’s digits are legendarily stumpy, but still large enough to cast a signature. And as long as that’s true, Ryan will set the bar for abandoning him very, very high.
The next question is how much Ryan is willing to tolerate, how much is he willing to give up, in order keep riding the tiger. If Ryan pursues his goals, the tiger may turn on him.