Donald Trump puts GOP in an impossible position

Updated 1:36 PM EDT, Fri May 13, 2016

Story highlights

Every time a bizarre statement highlights Trump's vulnerabilities, the task of conservatives weighing whether to back him gets more difficult, says Tara Setmayer.

Paul Ryan is walking a tightrope, aiming for party unity and supporting conservative principles

Editor’s Note: Tara Setmayer, a CNN political commentator, is former communications director for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-California. Follow her on Twitter @tarasetmayer. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN) —  

At a time when Donald Trump is trying to gain the support of conservative leaders like Paul Ryan and when they are trying to see if they can unite behind him, the flaws in his candidacy are on full display.

On Friday, Trump had to address a report by the Washington Post that he posed as his own publicist, using a fake name, in speaking with reporters as he built his business empire in the 20th century and denied that it was his voice on a recording despite evidence to the contrary.

We have yet to see his tax returns – which he says the public doesn’t have a right to see – and you never quite know when the next outrageous comment or event will happen.

Whether it’s white nationalist sympathizers ending up as delegates or most recently, his longtime butler’s recently discovered racially violent rants on social media (which Trump’s campaign disavowed Thursday), the volatility of Trump’s candidacy is an ongoing liability.

Speaker Ryan finds himself stuck between a rock and a political hard place. Ryan didn’t ask to be put in this situation, just like he didn’t ask to be thrust into the speaker’s chair last fall, but he’s in it now.

The sudden demise of the Cruz campaign, leaving Trump as the presumptive nominee, happened so quickly it hit many in the party like a flash grenade with their proverbial ears still ringing, in the aftermath. This includes Ryan, who last week on CNN said he “wasn’t ready” to support Trump just yet and for good reason. Is it too much to ask to expect common decency from your party’s presidential nominee?

Trump and his surrogates have sounded the clarion call for party unity and to fall in line behind him. Based on what exactly? A wing and a prayer? What has Trump done to demonstrate his penchant for unity? His behavior thus far has been quite the opposite. Just days after becoming the presumptive nominee, Trump said on “Meet The Press” that he didn’t need party unity to win. That’s not exactly an olive branch.

Yes, Donald Trump won a plurality of GOP primary votes, but close to 60% of Republican voters did not support him prior to Cruz and Kasich dropping out. Not to mention Trump’s historic negatives among women and minorities – metrics that do not bode well for a Republican candidate heading into a general election.

In a normal election cycle, unification would be a no-brainer. But as we all know, there’s nothing normal about 2016. How are conservatives supposed to unify behind someone who we feel is not only unfit for the office of the presidency, but doesn’t share our values either? This is not only a conundrum for many voters but potentially irreconcilable for even more.

After the much-anticipated meeting between Speaker Ryan and Trump in Washington, Ryan emphasized the importance of bridging the gap on “common core ” principles. No, not that “Common Core,” but the core conservative values that have been the glue that has kept it all together for the GOP for decades: limited government, individual liberty, and adherence to constitutional checks and balances on executive authority, to name a few.

Trump’s positions on all of those issues are relatively unknown and certainly absent from Trump’s free-flowing rants on the stump. Although Ryan’s comments seem to indicate he’s warily warming up to Trump, significant differences still remain.

Beyond Trump’s petulant temperament, character deficit and consistent dishonesty, his “flexibility” on a litany of policies from threatening to abandon our longtime partners in Europe, admiration for strongmen like Russian President Vladimir Putin, dangerous protectionism (reminiscent of Hoover’s disastrous policies of the 1920s) to tinkering with the party’s pro-life platform are anathema to the foundation of the GOP. Ryan’s hesitation to throw his full-throttled support behind Trump is legitimate and heartfelt. There’s more than just the political calculation here.

Paul Ryan is a protégé of Jack Kemp, most famous for his enthusiasm of supply side economics and desire to create equality of opportunity for minorities in broken urban communities. Kemp’s legacy has been largely unfulfilled by other party leaders, but Ryan has made a concerted effort to push for Republican policies that address the needs of the lower class and urban centers. He’s attempted to build the elusive “big tent” so desperately sought by the GOP, in practice not just rhetoric.

For example, Ryan has written books, presented policy prescriptions for tax and entitlement reform and actively participated in joint ventures with Bob Woodson’s Center for Neighborhood Enterprise to address the failed War on Poverty. How does that agenda square with Trump’s brand of Republicanism? A Kemp or Reagan Republican is a very different breed than a Trump Republican, however that is eventually defined.

Paul Ryan is walking a political tightrope with very little room for error. The venerable Cook Political Report has already downgraded GOP prospects in at least 10 House races. Some of the GOP’s 24 Senate seats up for re-election this year are also in play. With GOP control of both houses at risk, the potential consequences of a Trump candidacy extend beyond this election cycle. Clearly, Ryan still needs cover in case Trump implodes or loses in a landslide in November.

Trump surrogates often brag about Trump as a brand. Many of us find that very troubling. Conservatism isn’t simply a brand. It’s a worldview. A set of principles that govern the way we raise our families, run our businesses, our basic way of life.

A full-throttled endorsement of Trump means taking on his litany of transgressions from offensive statements against women, the disabled, immigrants and POWs, to his carousel of policy positions.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has already given us a preview of the coming attacks against Trump and GOP members who support him during a visceral attack from the Senate floor tying Republicans to Trump’s disparaging comments about women and immigrants. This is just the beginning and Paul Ryan knows it.

Jack Kemp once said, “Democracy without morality is impossible.” With a Trump/Clinton match-up in the offing, we’ll soon find out if that still applies.

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What happens when “it’s just talk” becomes actions? That’s the question now facing the campaign of Donald Trump, his supporters and the Republican Party as a growing number of women have come forward with accusations of sexual misconduct by Mr. Trump.

Tara Setmayer, a CNN political commentator, is former communications director for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-California. Follow her on Twitter @tarasetmayer. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.