With that, Ryan finished the session and headed for a White House meeting with a world leader who spent Wednesday morning belittling “weak” lawmakers who do not support his trade war policy, accused Georgia’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee of being “crime loving” and blasted his onetime lawyer as “sad!” for leaking a recording of the two discussing payments to cover up an alleged affair.
This is the contradiction Ryan faces in his final months in office. For the second time in a week, he held a forum on the favorite topic of his 20-year career, restoring the foundations of “civic life” and reclaiming his “raise your gaze” rhetoric of his first days as House speaker in 2015. But Ryan has struggled with squaring his own ethos of “common humanity,” as aides billed his lecture with interns, with President Trump’s brutish nature of believing victory is achieved through embarrassing one’s opponents into submission.
Even more than their stark policy differences on trade and immigration, Ryan and Trump have never fit together in the way they approach leadership and decorum. While the speaker spent a good portion of 2016 critiquing candidate Trump for his intemperate remarks, Ryan has pulled back from any public condemnation the past 18 months since the presidential inauguration.
That decision — a conscious one, as he says that those criticisms are now delivered in private — has eroded Ryan’s credibility as a moral leader. Not just among Democrats, who have long criticized him as an ideologue, but also among conservative intellectuals who spent years promoting Ryan as the next generation’s leader of a movement founded in the pages of William F. Buckley’s National Review in the 1950s and continued into the 1990s by Jack Kemp’s Empower America, where “bleeding heart conservatives” found solace.
One of those was Ryan, who worked for the former housing secretary briefly in 1993, before moving to a job on Capitol Hill. He retraced those early days at Wednesday’s event with the interns, a standing-room-only crowd in the Capitol Visitors Center hall. He name-checked his days waiting tables at Tortilla Coast a few blocks from the Capitol, then working on both sides of Congress, before returning home to win a House seat at the age of 28.
It remains an inspiring story, and the overwhelming majority of interns hung on every word without looking at their phones or whispering to one another. The message was clear: If Ryan could go from intern to speaker, maybe one of them could too.
To get there, Ryan issued a stark warning about the nature of today’s political discourse: Filled with “disillusionment” and lacking “substance ... reason ... facts ... merits.” Those engaged in the debate “rarely skim below the surface” and feed off a social media network with “a narrow vision of society.”
“Snark sells, but it doesn’t stick,” he said of today’s ad hominem attack culture.
Over 16 minutes, Ryan drew a pretty dark portrait of today’s politics — without ever mentioning Trump.
But as soon as he took questions, the students immediately turned to the same topic: Trump. The first question, from an intern for an Ohio Republican, was how he could defend himself from criticism from friends at his Catholic high school in Cleveland.
The next, from a Harvard University student interning for a New York Democrat, questioned Ryan for lacking “courage” to properly stand up to Trump over his denunciation of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into the president’s 2016 campaign ties to Russian cyberwarfare and its interference with the election.
Ryan cut short the intern’s question about Mueller’s inquiry. “Let me ask you this, is it still going on? It is, isn’t it? It hasn’t been ended, it’s still going on,” he said.
Last week the speaker held a session at the American Enterprise Institute on governing in “an age of tribalism and identity politics,” moderated by his friend Jonah Goldberg, who is one of several heirs to Buckley as a senior editor at National Review.
Together they each denounced “identity politics” as something that began in the liberal movement 50 years ago but has now jumped into Republican politics. But Goldberg has maintained his sharp criticism of Trump — he wrote this week about fears of the president “transforming the GOP into a nationalist-populist party” — in ways that Ryan has simply avoided.
Ryan made a decision after the election that he would pull back on questioning Trump’s moral behavior, regularly telling interviewers he hasn’t seen the tweets, in an effort to try to govern.
Now, as he heads toward the political twilight, Ryan wants to reclaim that part of his legacy as a moral conservative leader. But much of that legacy will be defined by his last two years in office, not his early days learning from Kemp or his first 16 years in Congress.
Despite these dark times, Ryan urged the young students to rise above the din.
“Remember that we do not have to be trapped by cynicism. We do not have to lower our sights,” he said in closing remarks, before leaving for his Trump meeting about the president’s demands for a U.S.-Mexico border wall that Ryan used to oppose.
“We don’t have to lower our gaze.”