Can Paul Ryan and the GOP be saved?

Story highlights

  • Timothy Stanley: Paul Ryan sees Trump might lead GOP to lose Senate, but knows he represents many voters Ryan doesn't want to betray
  • Stanley: Ryan has chosen careful distance from Trump; his struggle reflects bigger test: what to do when anti-establishment party turns on itself

Timothy Stanley is a historian and columnist for Britain's Daily Telegraph. He is the author of "Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration Between L.A. and D.C. Revolutionized American Politics", and "The Crusader: The Life and Tumultuous Times of Pat Buchanan." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)If you are religious, say a prayer for Paul Ryan. He is torn between the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and the moderates, between his brain and his heart.

Timothy Stanley
Ryan's politics are not Trumpian -- the speaker is an orthodox conservative in ideals and temperament. He sees that Trump is going to cost his party seats in Congress on November 8 -- maybe lose them the Senate, maybe force a fight for the House. But he also knows that Trump speaks for millions of Republicans who won't forgive betrayal of the ticket.
    Faced with a choice between backing Trump and repudiating him, Ryan has chosen carefully choreographed distance. The strategy might seem cowardly. But it's rational. It's probably the only option available. And, hey, it might even work.
    Congressman: If Ryan isn't for Trump then I'm not for Ryan
    Congressman: If Ryan isn't for Trump then I'm not for Ryan

      JUST WATCHED

      Congressman: If Ryan isn't for Trump then I'm not for Ryan

    MUST WATCH

    Congressman: If Ryan isn't for Trump then I'm not for Ryan 04:36
    There are three options open to Republicans. One is panic. Democrats are outspending the Republicans on ad buys in eight out of 10 key Senate races. In Indiana, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, at least $1 million more has been committed for the next two weeks than GOP groups have planned. Sen. Kelly Ayotte is eight points down in New Hampshire and she knows it's thanks in part to Trump. She once called him a role model for children; she now says she can't even vote for him.
    Option 2? Republicans could shut up and put up with Trump -- and that's probably what the base would have them do. Since Trump's national numbers started to tumble, Ryan's numbers have gone down, too -- particularly among Republicans furious with his refusal to go all out for Trump. Ryan is now regarded as slightly less conservative and a whole lot weaker.
    Trump is apparently now preferred as the face of the GOP and many activists cannot understand why the party doesn't come to the defense of the man it nominated over the summer. What has really changed? We all knew that Trump had accusations of unethical behavior in his past; we all knew that he has a Neanderthal attitude toward women.
    GOP ad calls for check and balance on White House
    GOP ad calls for check and balance on White House

      JUST WATCHED

      GOP ad calls for check and balance on White House

    MUST WATCH

    GOP ad calls for check and balance on White House 01:23
    He won the primaries labeling illegal Mexican migrants as (mostly) rapists and murderers. That the Republican elite is abandoning him now suggests that they are fickle. A price will be paid if Trump loses. Ryan will be blamed as much as Hillary and the mainstream media; the right will splinter. The 2020 primaries could be a grudge rematch between the party leadership and angry Trumpites.
    The tension between panic and defiance explains the third option, the one chosen by Ryan: careful distance from Trump. As if Trump were a building on fire, Ryan wants to be close enough to appear concerned with the fate of everyone affected but not too close so that he gets burned.
    Follow CNN Opinion

    Join us on Twitter and Facebook

    Ryan is pushing his Better Way agenda, which is essentially a congressional platform separate in theme and tone from Trump -- implying that if Americans cannot stomach The Donald then there's still a mainstream Republican manifesto they can vote for. It's hard not to infer a concession of defeat. In New Hampshire, a group has started running ads saying that locals should vote for Ayotte as a check and balance against the White House -- presumably a White House run by Clinton.
    Is this cowardice? Desperation? No. It's a mix of the principled, because Ayotte and others probably don't like Trump, anyway, and the pragmatic. Moreover, there's a growing hope that the outrageousness of Trump can actually help the GOP at a congressional level.
    He is so extreme, goes the theory, so unconservative in policy and behavior that voters are disassociating him from the GOP of their own volition. Whether Republicans should assist this process by attacking him or just stand back and watch him burn is unclear -- but some moderate Republicans believe that the more spectacular the inferno is, the better for them.
    GOP Commentator: Republicans 'are headed for a disaster'
    GOP Commentator: Republicans 'are headed for a disaster'

      JUST WATCHED

      GOP Commentator: Republicans 'are headed for a disaster'

    MUST WATCH

    GOP Commentator: Republicans 'are headed for a disaster' 04:55
    Mike Steel, the former RNC chair, writes that voters "understand" that Trump isn't a Republican and he appears convinced that voters won't punish the Republican Party for Trump's sins. Surely there are some Republicans who are praying that he gets beaten by double digits so as to discredit his politics completely? Or praying, better still, that Evan McMullin, the independent conservative, takes Utah -- and makes clear that Trump did not speak for the right as a whole.
    So this is what the GOP has come to: silently standing by, running a shadow congressional campaign, and hoping that their own candidate a) loses and b) doesn't take them down with them. It's desperate, even tragic. But to suggest that responsibility lies with a few men -- to denounce Ryan or Mitch McConnell, as Nancy Pelosi has done -- is unfair.
    Ryan is trying to save dozens of Republican candidates from a bad choice made by millions of Republican voters. He's a prisoner to the whims of democracy.
    And his private struggle nicely reflects the wider test of the conservative conscience: What does one do when a party that has spent decades setting itself against the establishment suddenly turns on itself?
    How do conservatives who have appealed to the people react when the people want something that conservatives don't?
    And the biggest question of all: given a choice between a bad Democrat and a terrible Republican, what does one do?
    Men like Ryan can only watch and wait. And pray.