It’s refreshing to have a Republican leader who speaks to our better angels while others in the political arena play to the fears of a frightened public. When it comes to high-minded rhetoric, House Speaker Paul Ryan has few peers, and on Wednesday he used a speech to a bipartisan group of interns on Capitol Hill to send a message to his party’s frontrunner.
He didn’t mention Donald Trump by name of course, keeping with his theme of civility. But there was no mistaking who Ryan meant when he said politics should be “a battle of ideas, not a battle of insults,” and “Our job as leaders is to offer a clear and compelling agenda, not to trade insults.”
Message sent, but whether it was received at Trump Central, who’s to know? Ryan has a better chance than most of being heard, not only because of his stature within the GOP but because he is the chairman of the Republican Convention in Cleveland in July. That means he will have considerable say over how a possible Trump nomination could be enabled, or derailed, in what could be a contested convention.
Ryan billed his speech, “The State of American Politics,” and credited his mentor, Jack Kemp, with instilling in him idealism that is best advanced by conservative principles. He lauded Kemp’s twin goals of low taxes and more engagement in addressing societal ills like poverty, and he promised a range of ideas over the coming months that will define a positive and optimistic GOP agenda.
“Members of Congress need to be part of the solution, not part of the problem,” he said, noting that 7 out of 10 Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction. “It’s not our job to put gas on the fire, but to channel this anger” into ideas on how to fix problems. “If we can’t raise our gaze and raise the tenor of the debate, how can we expect anyone else to do the same?”
Listening to Ryan requires separating rhetoric from reality. He is very good at delivering an idealistic speech about how things could work and should work. And those who know him believe the real Ryan is closer to the idealism he preaches than to the reality he experiences. When he took over as Speaker last year, it was by acclamation after his predecessor, John Boehner, resigned in disgust. Now Ryan battles the same dynamic that felled Boehner: a hard line Freedom Caucus that won’t abide any compromise and is holding up the House’s adoption of a budget.
Ryan’s words can also be viewed in the context of a leader who is beginning to separate House Republicans from Trump, should he get the nomination. The New York Times reported that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told his members they could drop Trump “like a hot rock.” What Ryan is doing, observes veteran Washington lobbyist Paul Equale, is more subtle. “He wants to simply distance himself from the burning house and inch away slowly.”
Without doubting Ryan’s sincerity or his motivation, the policy proposals are “air cover in terms of idealism” for House members who will need something else to run on than Trump’s wall at the Mexican border or his ban on all Muslims entering the United States.
Ryan has spoken out before to register his objection to Trump’s anti-Muslim statements and his slowness to repudiate support from former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke. But he always steers clear of mentioning Trump by name. “The system only works if we participate with mutual respect for one another,” he told the interns.
In the question and answer session that followed his speech, Ryan was asked if he had ever changed his mind after listening to the other side. He cited his use of the terms “makers” and “takers” in the 2012 election, when he was Mitt Romney’s running mate. He said he spoke about that “in the wrong way. I was callous and I over simplified, and I characterized people with a broad brush.”
He said he has learned a lot since then, having traveled the country to learn more about poverty and the challenges facing urban and rural communities. “I’m a late convert to prison justice reform,” he said. “Redemption is a beautiful thing, it’s a great thing, and we need to honor redemption… Our laws need to reflect that, and I learned a pretty good lesson over the last few years.”
Ryan says he is looking forward to a “contest of ideas,” and his speech Wednesday was another reminder to the frontrunner that there is an entire party that must be won over. Even the most anti-Establishment candidate can’t go it alone when the deal-making gets underway in Cleveland. As for Ryan, like his mentor Jack Kemp, he appears ready to work with whoever is the next president.