After finishing a speech on the lamentable state of American politics, House Speaker Paul Ryan fielded a question from one Capitol Hill intern who said he wouldn’t ask the Wisconsin Republican to “name names” and say specifically whom he was talking about.
“I’m not going to,” Ryan replied resolutely.
But he didn’t have to. Donald Trump, the Republican presidential frontrunner, wasn’t the only target of Ryan’s speech on Wednesday, but he was the primary one.
The 46-year-old Ryan spoke at length from a House hearing room about his concern that politics has drifted away from debates over ideas and attempts to unify the country, and is now debased by personal insults and divisive rhetoric.
“Politics can be a battle of ideas, not a battle of insults,” Ryan said. “That’s what it should be.”
Trump’s favorite response to criticism, of course, is the personal attack. And he has built his candidacy around the condemnation of groups that he casts as villains, be they Latino immigrants or Muslim refugees or the Democrats or even the Republican leadership in Washington.
Ryan took issue with Trump’s approach without naming him.
“What really bothers me the most about politics is this notion of identity politics,” Ryan said, “that we’re going to win an election by dividing people, that we’re going to win an election by talking to people in ways that divide them and separate them from other people, rather than inspiring people on our common humanity, on our common ideals, on our common culture, on the things that should unify us.”
The House speaker at the 2016 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in Washington, D.C., on Monday. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)
Ryan has leveled the “identity politics” charge at Democrats in the past, indicating that he believes motivating voters based on their racial, ethnic or gender identity divisively pits one group against another.
“We should not follow the Democrats and play identity politics,” he said in a speech on Feb. 2. “Let’s talk to people in ways that unite us and that are unique to America’s founding. That’s what I think people are hungry for.”
But over the past month, Ryan has spoken out more forcefully and more frequently against Trump, even though he has maintained he will support whoever the Republican nominee is.
Three weeks ago, Ryan rebuked Trump for his comments about the Ku Klux Klan and then expressed an aspiration that quickly proved laughable.
“I hope this is the last time I need to speak out on this race,” Ryan told reporters.
Two weeks after saying that, Ryan expressed concern over the violence at Trump’s rallies and placed responsibility for stopping it on Trump himself. Then three days later, Ryan called Trump’s warning that there would be “riots” if he did not get the GOP nomination “unacceptable.”
And on Wednesday, Ryan — the 2012 vice presidential nominee — hinted at the embarrassment and alarm that he and others in the GOP feel about the rise of Trump.
“Looking around at what’s taking place in politics today, it is easy to get disheartened,” Ryan said. “How many of you find yourself just shaking your head at what you see from both sides?”
There was plenty of fresh material to illustrate Ryan’s point. Just a day before, Trump had threatened Ted Cruz’s wife, Heidi, on Twitter, blaming the Texas senator for ads created by an outside group opposing Trump that showed a picture of Trump’s wife, Melania, nude on a bearskin rug — an image that ran in British GQ during her modeling days.
Ryan struck an uplifting tone in his remarks to an audience of Republican and Democratic interns, contrasting his message with Trump’s often strident and angry words.
“As leaders we need to raise our gaze and we need to raise our game and talk about ideas; try to unite us, not prey upon people’s fears,” he said.
But Ryan’s speech was not just aimed at political leaders. He also made a plea for more understanding and civility among voters.
“If someone has a bad idea, we don’t think they’re a bad person,” Ryan said. “People with different ideas, they’re not traitors, they’re not our enemies. They’re our neighbors, they’re our co-workers, they’re our fellow citizens. Sometimes they’re our friends. Sometimes they’re even our own flesh and blood.
“When passions flare, ugliness is sometimes inevitable, but we shouldn’t accept ugliness as the norm. We should demand better from ourselves, we should demand better from one another. We should think about the great leaders that have bestowed upon us the great opportunity to live the American idea. We should honor their legacy.”
Ryan also talked about ways he has fallen short in the past, calling it “wrong” to have characterized those receiving government support “takers.”
“I was callous and I oversimplified and I castigated people with a broad brush,” Ryan said. “‘Takers’ wasn’t how to refer to a single mom stuck in a poverty trap trying to take care of her own family. And to label a whole group of Americans that way was wrong. I shouldn’t castigate a large group of Americans just to make a point, so I stopped talking about it that way, and I stopped thinking about it that way.”
He added: “I didn’t come out and say this to be politically correct. I say this because I was just wrong.”
Ryan also critiqued criminal justice legislation passed in the ’90s that Congress is now seeking to change.
“Redemption is a beautiful thing. It’s a great thing. Redemption is what makes this place work, this place being America, society. And we need to honor redemption, and we need to make redemption something that is valued in our culture and our society and in our laws,” he said.
Despite his concerns about Trump, Ryan feels bound to an official stance of neutrality in the Republican primary because he is the chairman of the upcoming Republican National Convention in July and will preside over the proceedings.
Ryan said he has asked former Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to stop mentioning his name as a possible alternative to Trump at a contested convention. But Ryan also said last week that it is “more likely” than in the past that the GOP nomination will be settled at the convention and not solely through the voting leading up to it.