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How Many Levels Can You Count In The Ryan-Trump Chess Game?

If you've ever played three-dimensional chess, you have some notion of what Paul Ryan is dealing with in his political game with Donald Trump.

Except that Ryan's dilemma has more than just three dimensions.

On the first level, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is the highest federal officeholder in the Republican Party. In this role, he is slated to be the chairman of the party's national convention in July. And in both roles, it is presumed he will back the party's nominee for president.

That nominee is now all but certain to be Trump. So it would seem time for the speaker to salute and fall in line. To refuse, or even hesitate, creates uncertainty and turmoil in the party. It also provokes endless media speculation.

But for Ryan, that's not the only level of the game. Being speaker also makes Ryan the protector of 247 Republican seats in the current House, every last one of which will be on the ballot in November. If Trump turns out to be a disaster — or even a middleweight burden for down ballot candidates — the GOP could lose seats in swing districts. Granted, there are precious few swing districts left, but even incumbents in slightly less-safe seats will worry.

Beyond that, the game just gets more complicated.

Ryan is widely regarded as a thought leader in his party and in the conservative movement more generally. After meeting with Trump this week, he began his news conference with extensive remarks about addressing the opioid epidemic.

He speaks often of principles, and he seems to mean it. He has striven to reconcile his Catholic faith and concern for the poor with his admiration for Ayn Rand and a libertarian philosophy of small government and self-reliance.

He is a constitutionalist, an advocate of separated powers and restraints on presidential authority. And he has argued for cutting back on future commitments for Social Security and Medicaid to get budget deficits under control.

Trump has paid at least lip service to some of these ideas, at least at times. But he has also promised enormous power moves such as deporting 11 million people and building a monster wall and barring immigrants who are Muslims. The way he talks about trade and foreign policy suggests he plans to move in decisive fashion, Congress notwithstanding. He has denounced Ryan's approach to entitlements as "political suicide."

Visibly discomfited by much of this throughout the campaign, Ryan spoke out most forcefully in reaction to Trump's Muslim ban: "That is not what this party stands for," Ryan said in December, "and more importantly it's not what this country stands for."

Beyond any of these issues or past disagreements, Ryan's complex convictions are hard to reconcile with Trump's breathtaking disregard for consistency or systematic thinking.

Clearly, there's more than enough contradiction in all this for a three-dimensional chess board. Yet Ryan's calculations do not stop there.

Even as speaker, Ryan remains the representative of the 1st District of Wisconsin, a mix of rural communities and small cities wedged into the southeastern corner of the state between Milwaukee to the north and metro Chicago to the south. Ryan's approval numbers have been stratospheric there, and he has little reason to fear his intraparty opponent on the ballot in August — even if Sarah Palin makes good on her threat to campaign for the challenger.

But it gets more complicated the longer Ryan withholds his blessing for Trump's nomination. The district went for Ted Cruz in the April 5 primary by 19 points, but since Cruz dropped out and Trump became the de facto nominee, fresh polling has shown 1st District Republicans coming around. One poll found them split almost evenly between favorable and unfavorable feelings toward Trump, and a clear majority wanted Ryan to endorse him.

One 1st District resident who has done so is Reince Priebus, who hails from Kenosha, just 70 miles east of Ryan's home in Janesville. Priebus happens to be the chairman of the Republican National Committee. So he was quick to call on his home state neighbor after Ryan went public with his ambivalence toward Trump on May 5. Priebus urged Ryan to join him on the Trump train, and he brokered the meeting between speaker and nominee on Thursday at Republican headquarters on Capitol Hill.

Priebus and the others in this drama have been circumspect about the details of their conversations, but it seems likely the party chairman reminded his longtime friend of the changing sentiments toward Trump back home — and nationally.

Ryan has to be seeing the same clear message in polling done so far among Republicans nationwide. It warns that if Ryan stays off the bandwagon too long he risks alienating party stalwarts with long memories.

That would matter, of course, if Ryan pursues a presidential campaign of his own in 2020 or beyond. Ryan was Mitt Romney's running mate four years ago, at the tender age of 42. While he has said repeatedly he was not interested in running for president this year, he is widely regarded as a prospective candidate at some point in the future.

Unless he is an unusual politician indeed, Ryan has to be thinking about how a Trump presidency would affect his own future. If he links himself with the unpredictable outsider, he may be associating himself with a divisive and disastrous campaign.

On the other hand, if he refuses, how does he work with a President Trump? And won't he be risking the wrath of Trump's staunchest supporters in the event of a Trump defeat? Ryan might find himself blamed, at least in part, not only for Trump's loss but for whatever happens to the country under a President Hillary Clinton or a President Bernie Sanders.

Of course the same hazards might apply to any other prominent Republican who fails to endorse Trump or to back him wholeheartedly. Cruz and Marco Rubio might fall in this category.

But Ryan's position remains uniquely exposed, if only because as speaker his position is unique — both as a party symbol and as a focal point for its functionality.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.