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Why Paul Ryan’s gambit on Trump is backfiring

House Speaker Paul Ryan appeared to take a principled stand when he distanced himself from Donald Trump. But he has infuriated Mr. Trump and his supporters, and that could hurt other GOP candidates. 

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House Speaker Paul Ryan speaks the First Congressional District Republican Party of Wisconsin's 'Fall Fest' event in Elkhorn, Wis., on Saturday.

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When House Speaker Paul Ryan told fellow House Republicans that he would no longer campaign with or defend GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, he may have felt it was the obvious, principled position to take.

Speaker Ryan is a straight-shooting family man and devout Roman Catholic, and after the release of a lewd 2005 video showing Mr. Trump bragging about sexually aggressive treatment of women, Ryan said he was “disgusted.”

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Ryan’s goal in distancing himself from Trump, he told House GOP lawmakers on a conference call Monday, was to focus on saving the GOP majority in the House, potentially imperiled by Trump’s decline in polls. But Ryan’s new posture may already have backfired. Some fellow GOP House members are furious. And national party chairman Reince Priebus pointedly has not abandoned Trump, pledging to keep spending party money on the nominee’s campaign.

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Ryan appears only to have empowered Trump. The voluble billionaire, after all, clawed his way to the nomination by bucking the party establishment – and Ryan, as speaker, is as establishment as it gets. Now Trump boasts of feeling liberated.

Among the series of Twitter blasts aimed at Ryan and other “disloyal” Republicans: 

And an hour later:

Earlier in the day, he went after Ryan directly:

Fifty minutes later, he followed up:

It is an intraparty battle, the likes of which have not been seen in the modern political era.

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Ryan, the intellectual leader of his party, is not alone in his near-total disavowal of Trump. Dozens of elected party officials withdrew their endorsements of Trump after release of the “Trump tape.” And some called on Trump to quit the race. Ryan, in fact, has not withdrawn his endorsement, which he issued in June, tentatively and after some agony. But for a House speaker to effectively give up on his party’s presidential nominee is without precedent.

Even in 1964, when the GOP nominated the libertarian-leaning Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater for president, an ideological outlier, the party’s top congressional leaders did not abandon him. Well-known party figures like Gov. Nelson Rockefeller of New York and Gov. George Romney of Michigan did reject Senator Goldwater, but the GOP leaders in the House and Senate stuck by his side. Everett Dirksen of Illinois, the Senate minority leader, even nominated Goldwater at the party convention.

“Thus, the melee of 2016 is largely unique in terms of leadership heading for the exits,” writes historian David Pietrusza in an email.

The Republican leader of the Congress’s other chamber, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, has played a cagier game with Trump. He tepidly endorsed Trump in May, but has made clear to vulnerable GOP Senate incumbents that they should feel free to “do what they have to do” to save their seats. Senator McConnell is still keeping a low profile.

As for Mr. Priebus, the national party chairman, the approach from the start of the cycle has been to play it straight down the middle, even when it means supporting the man who has consumed the party by bashing the Priebus-led establishment.

Priebus is playing it smart, says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell.

“At the end of day, this is Trump’s party, he’s the standard-bearer, he’s the one generating the enthusiasm,” says Mr. O’Connell, chair of Civic Forum political action committee. “So the better he does in your state, the better off you are.”

Convincing voters to split their vote – go Republican for Senate, even if voting other-than-Trump for president – is extremely difficult, especially in this partisan era of politics.

“Split-ticket voting beyond 10 percent statewide is literally a myth,” says O’Connell.

There’s also a danger that if Trump’s candidacy goes into a tailspin, his voters may not bother to turn out, and therefore not vote in other races on the ballot. Or if they do turn out to vote for Trump, they may skip the Senate and House races, as a way to get back at establishment Republicans who have failed to support Trump.

“The party is in civil war, and what everyone seems to forget is this: Parties are not ideological machines,” says O’Connell. “They are competing enterprises designed to win elections. Sometimes you have to recognize that, even if it’s not your cup of tea. The Democrats get that.”

Trump made the same point in a tweet Tuesday, managing at the same time to poke the Democratic National Committee for its apparent favoritism toward Hillary Clinton in her primary battle against Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. 

So far, Trump has avoided an outright tailspin after the release of the leaked “Access Hollywood” video. His debate performance Sunday night pleased many Republicans for its aggressive approach toward Mrs. Clinton, the Democratic nominee, and seems to have stopped his decline in the polls. It’s also noteworthy that since the debate, no new Republican elected officials have announced they are abandoning Trump.

But if Trump’s campaign doesn’t reverse its decline soon, the party will de facto give up on him, as it did a few weeks before the 1996 election, when GOP nominee Bob Dole appeared headed for certain defeat against President Bill Clinton. By mid-October, the mantra was “every man for himself.” The argument was, elect Republicans as a check on President Clinton.

Republicans are now making the same argument – against another would-be President Clinton. But unlike Senator Dole, who faced defeat graciously, Trump may be prepared to take the party down with him.