The fast-eroding relationship between Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Donald Trump is about as friendly as the one which existed between Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany.
Many have been quick to descry Ryan, who has seemingly gone through more positions on Trump than a ballerina, and other party members for disavowing the nominee so close to an election that Republicans need to win lest their long-term durability as a national party be challenged.
But those who point out that Ryan and other GOP party leaders up for re-election who are jumping on and off the electoral carousel in time with opinion polling are doing so precisely because the right cannot afford to be out of the White House for 12 years also have a point.
There is a central conflict here. Trump, as the candidate hoping to be the elected head of the party, has the right to expect support from the party which vetted him through an arduous, scrutinizing primary process. On the other hand, Ryan and others who already have political power, have the right to expect the candidate maintain a standard of conduct in keeping with the principles of the party. They also have a right to expect that their candidate is spending the crucial weeks before the election focused on attacking political opponents, not members of the party who exert their independence of conscience.
It is possible for both Ryan’s waffling and Trump’s behavior to be unacceptable. To coin a phrase: political loyalty is a two-way street.
The devolving spat, however, does raise a question which is crucial to the function of electoral politics: what are the reasonable parameters of intraparty loyalty? Does running for office under the auspices of a political party mean ceding the right to free expression. To some degrees, yes. For example, the GOP’s platform is specifically for the lowering of taxes wherever possible. No one who represents the party has any right to expect to be allowed to advocate for tax hikes and continue receiving party support.
Party sponsorship is effectively a contract between a candidate and the party. Each recognizes a need which can be fulfilled by the other and each expects to receive some benefit. For the candidate, it is use of the organization, resources and credibility and recognition which national political parties command. For the party, it is the attainment of greater power and control through leaders who provide a desirable face to constituents and who lobby effectively for policy which supports the ideology around which it is founded.
America, after all, is not a closed political system. True, there are ballot access laws, but these exist more as a check upon non-serious actors who might do damage to the system than more as a way of keeping non-party actors from power. But effective communicators with strong vision can run outside of the party framework. Frequently, they choose not to because of the logistical challenges.
This must be remembered when spats between personalities erupt. Ego is important to electoral politics; it is what gives politicians the boldness to stand before the polity and proclaim their ideas in the best interest of the nation. Strong personalities can be in aid of this as they create an identifiable brand for a party. However, individual will must be subjugated to the party as the good of the former is dependent on the good of the latter. This is true for those who have political power and those who are hoping to attain it.