Can you give a speech about the state of American politics today without mentioning Donald Trump?
If you’re Speaker Paul D. Ryan, you can.
The Wisconsin Republican delivered a 15-minute speech Wednesday to a few hundred congressional interns and then took questions from them.
The speech drew criticism from some Democrats, who said Ryan missed a chance to denounce Trump, and from some Republicans, who said the GOP’s own policies have contributed to the current political climate.
A source close to Ryan said the speech was designed to build on the speaker’s “confident America” mantra and help refocus the presidential race on the big picture, as well as inspire the next generation of leaders. Rather than adopt the GOP front-runner’s brash style of politics, Ryan chose to lead by example and remain above the fray.
Since he was elected speaker in October, Ryan has shied away from speaking about the presidential race, despite repeated questioning from reporters about it. He argues that in his role as chair of the Republican National Convention, he needs to remain neutral.
But it’s about more than that. As speaker, Ryan has pledged to move power out of his office and into the hands of his members.
He encouraged committee chairmen to hold listening sessions to gather input on legislation before their committees, as well as policy ideas on taxes, healthcare, welfare and national security that will comprise a House Republican agenda to be unveiled later this spring.
He called for a free exchange of ideas and respectful debate, much of which has been lost in the antagonistic tone of the presidential race.
“We don’t lock ourselves in an echo chamber, where we take comfort in the dogmas and opinions we already hold,” Ryan said in Wednesday’s speech. “We don’t shut down on people — and we don’t shut people down.”
“If someone has a bad idea, we tell them why our idea is better,” he added. “We don’t insult them into agreeing with us. We try to persuade them. We test their assumptions. And while we’re at it, we test our own assumptions too.”
The political discourse in America “did not use to be this bad and it does not have to be this way,” Ryan said.
Further explaining the “bad,” Ryan talked about politicians playing to American anxieties, catering to the party bases and being timid. Instead, politicians should appeal to Americans’ aspirations, unite around ideas and be bold, he said.
“We don’t resort to scaring you, we dare to inspire you,” Ryan said of his vision for what politics should be. “We don’t just oppose someone or something. We propose a clear and compelling alternative. And when we do that, we don’t just win the argument. We don’t just win your support. We win your enthusiasm.”
The rancorous discourse Ryan described existed in politics long before Trump entered the presidential race, but the billionaire businessman has certainly changed political debate. So too have other anti-establishment candidates running this cycle. Ryan didn’t mention any of them, not even Trump.
Ryan has condemned some of Trump’s remarks, without naming him directly, but he continues to say that he’ll support Trump if he wins the nomination. His choice to not mention the GOP front-runner was something Democrats noticed.
“Speaker Ryan is speechifying on the deck of the Titanic, running a do-nothing Congress while supporting Donald Trump, a racist demagogue, for president,” said Adam Jentleson, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid’s deputy chief of staff. “Speaker Ryan’s words will ring hollow until he backs them up with action and withdraws his support from Donald Trump.”
It wasn’t just Democrats who were critical of Ryan’s speech. Rep. John Fleming, R-La., who is running for Senate, faulted GOP leaders for the degrading of American politics.
Fleming cited jobs being shipped overseas, a culture that glorifies violence, and a country unwilling to stand with its allies against terrorists as failures of current elected leaders.
“Barack Obama has been a failure, but Republican leadership is also to be blamed for refusing to confront many of these problems,” he said.
Ryan acknowledged some of those failures, including criminal sentencing legislation Congress passed in the 1990s that led to many people serving longer prison terms for non-violent crimes and making it more difficult for them to find work and stay out of prison upon release.
“We overcompensated in some of our criminal justice laws,” Ryan said in response to an intern’s question about a moment in his career in which he’d been persuaded his approach was wrong.
The speaker also spoke about his evolution as a politician, acknowledging that he has not always lived up to the ideals he was promoting. For example, he expressed regret that he used to use the terms “makers and takers” when referring to people who receive government assistance.
“To label a whole group of Americans that way was wrong,” Ryan said. “I shouldn’t castigate a large group of Americans to make a point.”
The speaker may not have mentioned Trump or other politicians in his speech, but his advice was clearly directed at many of them.
“When passions flair, ugliness is sometimes inevitable,” he said. “But we shouldn’t accept ugliness as the norm. We should demand better from ourselves and from one another.”