But Paul Ryan’s appearance Wednesday at Georgetown University was, in essence, a pep talk for a generation of voters more dismayed than most at the direction of the Republican party’s presidential race.
One Georgetown student got to the heart of matter early in the 45-minute Q&A session: “I’ll never support Donald Trump, and Ted Cruz does very little to appeal to me as a young voter. So I ask you: What advice or reasons for optimism could you offer to young Republicans such as myself who find it very difficult to support either of the two leading candidates for our party’s nomination?”
“Unfortunately,” Ryan replied, “it’s not the first time I’ve had this question.”
The crowd chuckled in the wood-paneled confines of Georgetown’s Gaston Hall, on a campus that has long attracted young conservatives in the Alex P. Keaton mold — the bright, well-read and well-raised children of Republicans, much like Ryan himself. Though presidential front-runner Donald Trump had just finished delivering a foreign policy speech just a couple of miles away when Ryan took the stage, culturally, he was speaking in a different land.
And after making his usual pains to declare his neutrality in the presidential race, Ryan made his case: “Look at the ideas. Look at the platform that is being advanced,” he said. “Look at what it is we are presenting the country later this summer before [the Republican National Convention in] Cleveland. … Look at the policies, not at the person necessarily, because it’s the policies that matter so much.”
Ryan went on to pitch his belief in the politically redemptive power of ideas — specifically, the policy agenda that House Republicans are planning to roll out before the party convention in July — and he won applause when he renounced the “makers and takers” rhetoric he once favored and when he rejected a student’s suggestion that a recent House decision to remove the Mississippi state flag from a Capitol corridor amounted to “renewed northern Republican reconstruction.”
“In the Capitol, if we’re going to have symbols, we’re going to have symbols that unify people and don’t divide people,” he said.
But in a broader range of questions from students skeptical of Ryan’s policy prescriptions, he had a more complicated time playing ambassador for conservatism.
When one student asked about rising levels of student debt, Ryan dismissed Democratic proposals for free community college and instead spoke about the downside of third-party payment regimes and the need to break up the “college cartel” to more easily allow transfers of credits. A question about climate change was met with mentions of “clean coal technology” and the need for scientific research “to innovate our way into a cleaner economy” and a dismissal of any federal carbon tax or cap-and-trade system.
When one student asked how Republicans would replace Obamacare’s prohibition on insurance denials for pre-existing conditions, Ryan sketched out how a system of state-based “risk pools” might work. And when another student confronted Ryan with the examples of Arizona and Kansas — where Republican-controlled state governments implemented GOP policies with decidedly mixed results — he pivoted to his favorite subject: tax reform.
“Because we believe limited government doesn’t mean we believe in no government,” he said. “We want government to be effective at what it does. We don’t want government to stretch itself beyond where it should be.”
If the larger point of Ryan’s Georgetown visit was to ease the despair of young conservatives, though, there were signs of success.
Ryan Shymansky, a Georgetown senior majoring in government, attended the forum and described himself as “a Republican until the Republicans nominate Donald Trump,” and he said he took heart from Ryan’s remarks.
“I get the sense that, even if he won’t openly admit it, that he’s not about to vote for Donald Trump, either,” Shymansky said. “I think that he represents what this party can be. I just think we have to get to the point where we’re willing to accept that.”