Paul Ryan Denounces You-Know-Who

Addressing congressional interns, the House speaker delivered a speech on civility in politics without mentioning a certain someone leading the Republican presidential field.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

You don’t even have to say his name anymore.

Just use the words “insults” and “ugliness,” “enemies” and “traitors.” People will know who you’re talking about. They’ll get it.

With just a day’s notice, House Speaker Paul Ryan on Wednesday gathered a couple hundred Capitol Hill interns, invited them to sit down in the ornate House Ways and Means Committee hearing room, gave them permission to tweet and SnapChat, and talked to them for 40 minutes about Donald Trump. Except, of course, those words never once slipped past his lips. Ryan treated Trump like Voldemort—perhaps appropriately so in a speech delivered to members of the Harry Potter generation.

Officially, the topic of Ryan’s speech was “the state of American politics.” And as the star-crossed leader of the Republican Party in Washington, Ryan dutifully blamed “both sides” for the disheartening tenor of the 2016 presidential race, and he implicitly criticized protesters who would try to “shut people down.” Left unsaid, however, was a truth that’s been apparent for several months: The state of American politics right now is the ubiquitous Donald Trump.

“This has always been a tough business,” the speaker told the interns. “And when passions flare, ugliness is sometimes inevitable. But we shouldn’t accept ugliness as the norm. We should demand better from ourselves and from one another.”

Ryan’s 15-minute address—he took questions afterward—was a high-minded speech from a high-minded speaker. He spoke eloquently and optimistically about why he got into public service, the nation’s founding ideals, his mentor Jack Kemp, and “what politics can be.”

“Ideas, passionately promoted and put to the test—that’s what politics can be. That’s what our country can be,” Ryan said.

It can be a confident America, where we have a basic faith in politics and leaders. It can be a place where we’ve earned that faith. All of us as leaders can hold ourselves to the highest standards of integrity and decency. Instead of playing to your anxieties, we can appeal to your aspirations. Instead of playing the identity politics of ‘our base’ and ‘their base,’ we unite people around ideas and principles. And instead of being timid, we go bold.

We don’t resort to scaring you, we dare to inspire you. 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. We win hearts and minds. We win a mandate to do what needs to be done to protect the American Idea.

In a confident America, we also have a basic faith in one another. We question each other’s ideas—vigorously—but we don’t question each other’s motives. If someone has a bad idea, we don’t think they’re a bad person. We just think they have a bad idea. People with different ideas are not traitors. They are not our enemies. They are our neighbors, our coworkers, our fellow citizens. Sometimes they’re our friends. Sometimes they’re even our own flesh and blood, right? We all know someone we love who disagrees with us politically, or votes differently.

But in a confident America, we aren’t afraid to disagree with each other. We don’t lock ourselves in an echo chamber, where we take comfort in the dogmas and opinions we already hold. 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. 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.

To prove his sincerity, Ryan issued his own mea culpa—albeit one he has offered in the past. He told the interns about how he used to talk about the “makers” and “takers” in society, demeaning those who accepted government benefits. “I realized I was wrong,” Ryan said. “‘Takers’ wasn’t how to refer to a single mom stuck in a poverty trap, just trying to take care of her family. Most people don't want to be dependent. And to label a whole group of Americans that way was wrong. I shouldn’t castigate a large group of Americans to make a point.”

Why did Ryan want to give this speech now, and why did he want to give it to a bunch of congressional interns? The speaker has been publicly wrestling with the Trump phenomenon—or takeover, as many conservatives see it—since shortly after he took office last fall. He’s reluctantly denounced what he sees as Trump’s most egregious moves, like calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country and seeming to encourage violence at his rallies. But he has refused to denounce or disavow Trump himself, seeing it as his responsibility as chairman of the Republican National Convention to remain neutral in the party’s primary process. Ryan says he won’t be drafted as a white-horse candidate in a deadlocked convention, but then again, he said he wouldn’t be drafted to run for speaker until he was.

To Democrats, Ryan’s predicament is not as thorny as he makes it seem, and they accuse the speaker of choosing to hide in the mushy middle rather than actually taking a stand against Trump. “This late in the game, the only meaningful thing Ryan can do is withdraw his support from Trump. All else is fluff,” tweeted Adam Jentleson, a top aide to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.

Another way to look at it, perhaps, is that Ryan knows it’s too late, and he’s playing a longer game. Many Republicans—some publicly and some privately—have already given up on the 2016 race. Trump is marching toward the nomination, and the only man seemingly capable of stopping him is Ted Cruz, a senator despised by the establishment and a potential nominee who could be even more unelectable than Trump. If anyone is still standing on the other side of November, it is likely to be Ryan, and he might merely be trying to put away the teetering Jenga tower before it inevitably crashes to the ground.

And that’s where the interns come in. It’s not too late to reach them (and more importantly, their less politically-attuned friends). Ryan did his level best to keep them inspired about politics, as if they might up and quit their plum resumé-building posts out of sheer frustration with the absurdity of this election. Yet Ryan wasn’t above giving them a bit of a rose-colored view of history. Much as President Obama did when he addressed the Illinois General Assembly last month on a similar topic, Ryan spoke fondly of the gentlemanly spirit he found when he came to Congress in the late 1990s and joined the prestigious Ways and Means Committee in his second term. “We treated each other with respect.  We disagreed—often fiercely so—but we disagreed without being disagreeable,” he recalled. “I speak of this in the past tense only because I no longer serve here. But it almost sounds like I’m speaking of another time, doesn’t it?”

Not exactly, Mr. Speaker. What Ryan didn’t mention was that the month before he was sworn in as a congressman in 1999, the Republican-led House of Representatives impeached a Democratic president for lying about sex. Not that the interns would have remembered—they were probably toddlers at the time.

Before Ryan entered the room on Wednesday, his digital director, Caleb Smith, stepped to the lectern to warm up the crowd. “I thought this was going to be a live audience,” he quipped. As if to say, “Relax,” Smith told the interns that they could take out their phones, tweet, SnapChat, even “do the wave, if you can coordinate that.”

“This is not your high school graduation. You don’t have to save your applause to the end,” he said. But don’t forget, Smith reminded them: Make sure to tag @speakerryan and use the hashtag #aconfidentamerica. Ryan might be trying to save the country, but you might as well try to boost your political brand—and get some more young followers—while you’re at it.

Young and impressionable though they might be, the interns got the idea. When it was time to ask questions, they understood the winks and the nods, and the Republican front-runner who wasn’t to be named. There was no pressing the speaker to denounce Donald Trump, or endorse another candidate, or say he would run and save the party. They weren’t budding reporters, after all, but budding politicos.

“I’m not going to ask you to name names,” one questioner told him with a knowing smile.

“I’m not going to,” Ryan quickly replied, in case anyone had a doubt.