House Speaker Paul D. Ryan delivered a repudiation Wednesday of the “disheartened” state of American politics, blasting the “identity politics” on display in the increasingly toxic Republican presidential primary but steering clear of a direct critique of Donald Trump.
Ryan (R-Wis.) declined to address Trump by name or the tenor of his rallies — a change from the past few weeks, when Ryan has been forced to speak out against the GOP front-runner and situations that have increasingly irritated him. But the address was an unmistakable attempt to set up a buffer for congressional Republicans from the divisive remarks and proposals from the businessman, while at the same time avoiding a direct clash with Trump to avoid both his wrath and upsetting supporters of his that GOP candidates might need in the general elections.
“Looking around at what’s taking place in politics today, it is easy to get disheartened,” Ryan said inside the hearing room of the House Ways and Means Committee, the panel he chaired last year before he was drafted into taking over as speaker after the surprise retirement of Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). “How many of you find yourself shaking your head at what you see from both sides of the aisle these days?”
“It did not used to be this bad,” Ryan said, explaining his own idealistic days as an intern and young staffer on Capitol Hill two decades ago to a crowd of nearly 200 interns.
His speech came amid Trump’s continued march through the Republican primary calendar, following a win Tuesday in Arizona that increased his delegate lead and edged him closer toward securing the nomination before the convention in Cleveland.
Ryan has taken the lead in criticizing Trump for not forcefully repudiating the support his campaign has received from white supremacists and for the violence happening at his rallies. Yet each time, Ryan has refused to repudiate Trump’s candidacy should he emerge as the Republican nominee, leading to repeated questions about the controversial candidate.
In recent days, however, Ryan has become openly irked by the issue, telling reporters Tuesday morning at the weekly news conference with the entire GOP leadership team that he would not “take the bait” on Trump-related questions.
It’s a difficult balancing act for Ryan, who has publicly tried to remain neutral in the race, as he will be the co-chairman of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July and could be called upon to officiate disputes over delegate counts if neither Trump nor Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) secures the tally required to cinch the nomination. At the same time, Ryan has had to beat down loud whispers from friends and supporters who view him as the perfect unity candidate at a disputed convention to win the backing of a large majority of delegates.
Congressional Democrats have mocked Ryan with each critique of Trump — most recently regarding the violence at some of his rallies — because each time the speaker has also added that he will support whomever the nominee is coming out of the convention. A spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) linked the past five years of congressional standoffs with President Obama to the rise of Trump and his heated campaign rhetoric this year. “A runaway Republican primary constantly reminds the American people of the extreme policy positions advocated by so many in the House Republican Conference,” Drew Hammill said in a statement.
Ryan’s speech came amid a debate among some “movement” conservatives about whether he owes it to their cause to more forcefully inject himself into the “Stop Trump” or “Never Trump” efforts. But he continued to hold off those calls Wednesday. There was only one indirect mention of Trump — in the first question from an intern — and the speaker made clear he would not address any of the candidates specifically.
Instead, he told the crowd that playing “identity politics” could not win a national election, something he ascribed to both parties but an issue that has closely followed Trump’s anti-immigration campaign. The path to victory is by winning over voters through the best ideas, he said.
“Instead of being timid, we go bold,” Ryan said, adding later, “We don’t insult them into agreeing with us.”
In an unusually personal portion of the question-and-answer session, he explained his own failing during Obama’s first term, when he was prone to talking about “makers and takers” in society to divide up entrepreneurs and people living off government subsidies.
After serving as the Republican vice-presidential nominee in 2012 — when GOP candidate Mitt Romney made a similar comment about “47 percent” of voters living off the government — Ryan spent the next two years privately visiting urban activists and religious leaders working with ex-prisoners.
“I was callous,” Ryan said of his previous attitude.