Can Paul Ryan Save the Republican Party from Donald Trump?
A new report from the speaker of the House on national security sets out a dramatically different course than the GOP presidential nominee. Is anyone listening?
Historian J. Christopher Herold defined diplomacy as “the art of fishing tranquilly in troubled waters.” There has been precious little tranquility or diplomacy in the 2016 presidential election. On the Republican side, the diplomats were bounced out early, and racist/misogynist/political arsonist Donald Trump remains the last man standing. As an unrepentant signatory of the Never Trump letter, this circus leaves your correspondent with the dilemma of writing in someone more worthy as a protest or — because I fear Trump may actually get elected — voting for the Democratic nominee, whose domestic policies and cronyism are unpalatable. Yet there is no denying Hillary Clinton would be a safer pair of hands for U.S. national security policy than Trump.
The sole consolation for the disgraceful spectacle that has been the Republican primary is gratitude that our American system of government was designed with robust checks on the power of the executive. Lift a glass not only to Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, but also to John Marshall, who established the courts as a branch equal to the others (over the objections of the executive at the time, one Mr. Thomas Jefferson).
It is to the legislature that conservatives who oppose Trump’s outlandish proposals can repair. Yet his presence at the top of the Republican ticket (and the quisling of Reince Priebus) will likely cause the party to lose control of the Senate. Which leaves only the House of Representatives. House Speaker Paul Ryan is the alternative standard-bearer for the party, the leading political figure who can define the party differently — if in fact that can be done. Ryan’s attempts so far to hold the party together, initially withholding support, then conditionally endorsing Trump, have been deeply disappointing. He seems to be operating on the theory that Trump’s positions can be influenced, but Thomas Wright revealed in January the decades-long consistency in Trump’s views. Ryan should not believe Trump will be bound by GOP principles or policies. Nor has Trump newly blossomed into a dangerous bigot; that has been evident throughout the race. And while Ryan has criticized Trump’s racist comments, Ryan’s endorsement inescapably connects the Republican Party to them, as Michael Gerson devastatingly argued.
All of which makes last week’s release of the report of the House Task Force on National Security a welcome contribution. Written by the committee chairs of the Judiciary, Homeland Security, Intelligence, Veterans, Foreign Affairs, and Armed Services committees, and titled “A Better Way: Our Vision for a Confident America,” the report actually manages to sound diplomatic as it sets priorities and policy direction for the majority party in the House of Representatives. In a dystopian political cycle, the optimistic vision, even the language, is welcome.
Although the report has been in the works for some time, the reassertion of congressional powers is long overdue and will reassure those of both parties who fear a Trump presidency. The emphasis on legislative responsibility for protecting the nation against all enemies, foreign and domestic, was a grace note in light of the recklessness Trump has displayed about the laws of our land. But Congress has complained about executive overreach throughout Barack Obama’s presidency without exercising its sovereign powers (beyond denying the president closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison), and House Republicans have been incapable of either forcing the president’s hand or finding common ground with Democrats in the Senate and House. What the report looks to be trying to do is establish lines of effort that can gain bipartisan support — or at least not repel Democrats, Independents, and moderate Republicans from potential compromise.
The way to think about the House report is as the legislative equivalent of the president’s National Security Strategy (NSS): a document that sets the tone of how the United States will go about acting on foreign, defense, and international economic policies. It provides legislative guidance and a means to hold the House (as the NSS does the president) accountable for subsequent legislation. This cycle will be even more important if the Republican nominee is elected. Indeed, Ryan’s report compares favorably with many presidential National Security Strategies, especially those issued the last year in office. (President Bill Clinton’s 1999 document, which resembles a Christmas tree hung with every ornament, is especially bad.)
Where the report becomes noteworthy is how it proposes to go about strengthening defense and restoring economic competitiveness that is integral to U.S. national security. In addition to the expected emphasis on restoring military prowess and facilitating trade, the report stresses pushing American defenses beyond our borders through close cooperation with other countries; preparing for terrorist attacks; using all elements of national power (not just military force) to deny terrorists sanctuary; pursuing long-term political solutions to keep terrorism from reemerging; promoting liberty and human dignity; empowering women in transitioning societies; revitalizing diplomatic broadcasting; and strengthening our diplomatic tools. Not only is this is a much kinder, more sophisticated set of policies than the party’s presidential nominee advocates, it is a much kinder, more sophisticated set of policies than Republicans have advocated in recent years.
The report’s clear statement that foreign policy is failing at almost every turn is a warning shot for Hillary Clinton, since she’s tying herself so tightly to Obama’s policies. The report lists the expected failures: the Syrian red line, the Iranian nuclear agreement, and the dismissal of the threat posed by the Islamic State. But it advocates a more engaged policy than the party’s presidential nominee; running through all of the policy guidance emphasizes working cooperatively with allies and institutions that help keep America safe and advance our interests. Where Trump would ban Muslims from entering the United States, the report acknowledges that most people illegally in the United States are here on expired visas and would thus create a tracking system to end overstays and upgrade digital vetting.
The specific measures recommended are moderate and thoughtful — and at clear variance with Trump’s proposals across the board. For example, Trump claims he would destroy the Islamic State, torture captured terrorists, and kill their families but somehow not get involved in the Middle East. In contrast, the Ryan report discusses ways to continually review vulnerabilities and improve performance, such as strengthening engagement in domestic communities to improve the ability to identify and stop terrorist recruitment. It also stresses values — winning the war of ideas — to defang terrorist threats by amplifying credible counter-jihadist voices and assisting allies that face greater threats than we do. The report rings with the deft touch of Rep. Mike McCaul’s approach in Failures of Imagination: The Deadliest Threats to Our Homeland – and How to Thwart Them and Mac Thornberry’s reforms of the Defense Department.
The description of border security is especially interesting in light of Trump’s insistence on building a wall. The report makes a sharp distinction between immigration and illegal immigration, praising the former and emphasizing that “America has a proud tradition of welcoming innocent civilians fleeing violence and instability.” While taking a strong stand on border security (north, south, and maritime), much of the emphasis is on providing government a better understanding of what is actually occurring at the border — utilizing the technologies that have given our military pervasive monitoring and search capabilities — and sharing intelligence with partners to create secure space beyond our borders. Those sensible policies would be impossible to enact with Trump as president.
The report marks a shift from the rhetoric of many Republicans in the past two election cycles about shutting down government departments — from the U.S. Agency for International Development to the U.S. Information Agency. The emphasis is instead on reform and resource prioritization: improving government performance rather than reflexively railing against government action. It’s almost as though Trump’s recklessness has occasioned more moderation from House Republicans — which would be good for the country.
I read the report more as a rebuttal of the Republican nominee for president than of Obama or the Democratic nominee. It was a nice touch by Ryan to remind us how low-key and sensible the party of Lincoln can be. For all the disappointment of endorsing Trump for president, Ryan may yet save the Republican Party. But he will have to demonstrate he can move beyond statements of principle to concerted legislative action. The House report had only authorizers, not appropriators; whether the committee chairmen who commit funds to legislation will support these priorities is an open question. But Ryan has done three important things with “A Better Way”: reminding us that Congress can set a legislative agenda that bounds the range of executive action; outlining an approach to national security that stands in contrast with Trump’s proposals; and showcasing numerous leaders in the House who stand for different policies and display different values than the Republican Party’s ugly nominee for president.
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