Speaker of the House Paul Ryan may have inadvertently done Donald Trump a favor on Monday, when he held a conference call with House Republicans to inform them he would not be campaigning for the party’s nominee.
Ryan irritated pro-Trump Republicans while renewing a bad news cycle that Trump’s strong debate performance on Sunday might have otherwise ended, probably to the benefit of nervous down-ticket candidates.
But Ryan also gave Trump something new: clarity.
Trump is now free to run against Washington as a whole, which is likely what he meant by tweeting Tuesday morning that “the shackles have been taken off me.”
Trump won the primary by attacking both Democrats and Republicans — which is precisely how much of the electorate feels. As he moved closer to the nomination, he had to tone down some of his attacks.
He is now free to renew them — and they may work, provided he retains the message discipline he has learned (somewhat) along the way.
There are some exceptions. Trump remains on friendly terms with Reince Priebus and the Republican National Committee (RNC). Trump obeys a simple principle in his relationships: he is friendly to those who are friendly to him, and nasty to those who are not, until they recant. (He seems willing to apply that rule to foreign policy as well, which is why he has not yet shown the requisite outrage towards Russia’s Vladimir Putin.) He will not attack the party as a whole.
Yet he will run against its leadership — and he has no other choice, because the Republican Party will not be unified before November (if ever). He has to pull votes from the disaffected, and from Democrats.
The simple truth of American politics is that while Republicans have better, and more popular, policies, they have a terrible brand. That is why Trump was able to lap the field in the primary.
The question is whether Trump’s own brand, battered by the political contest, is still any better.
Strip away the daily news cycle, and the 2016 presidential election boils down to the following choice. Hillary Clinton offers a status quo that voters know is corrupt, and incapable of grappling with the country’s challenges, both internal and external, but which might be just stable enough to stave off disaster for long enough for better leaders to emerge.
Donald Trump offers a shakeup that is high-risk, high-reward: it could lead to making America great again, but it could also lead to greater chaos.
To win, Trump has to minimize his own risk profile while making the status quo as intolerable as possible. The Republican leadership represents that status quo, even though every single Republican in high office in Congress owes his position to a revolt against Washington that stretches across three elections. They promised to change the system, and they barely tried.
Ryan has given Trump a target, however inadvertently. Trump’s challenge is to convince voters he is an acceptable alternative.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. His new book, See No Evil: 19 Hard Truths the Left Can’t Handle, is available from Regnery through Amazon. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.