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.