Paul Ryan is more or less resigned to the fact that Donald Trump, who stands for everything that he doesn’t, is likely to become his party’s nominee. In a highly anticipated speech to hundreds of Capitol Hill interns on Wednesday morning, the House speaker avoided the direct confrontation with Trump that many had expected. Instead, he insisted that his own forward-looking, opportunity-minded, civil brand of conservatism will survive, no matter what happens between now and November.
As Trump threatens to tear the Republican party asunder, Ryan urged the crowd of twenty-somethings not to lose faith in the country’s political process because of the current polarization in Congress and on the campaign trail. He spoke in defense of the politics and political institutions that Trump has derided, and even for the idea of politics as a vocation, of which Trump’s ascendancy has made such a mockery. His Republican conference, he made clear, will do its best to mold a party that stands in stark contrast to the one represented by Donald Trump, one that fosters a “confident America.”
Political discourse, Ryan said, “did not used to be this bad, and it does not have to be this way.” The subtext of his remarks was obvious — that idealistic young people drawn to politics, much as he was in the 1980s, should not lose heart because of one angry, ugly election cycle. He offered hope, essentially, that things could and would return to normal eventually. Though he blamed blamed both political parties for the systemic deterioration that helped Trump rise, he was in essence offering an apology for the unapologetic vulgarian on his way to becoming the Republican standard-bearer, and he was asking the young people in the room to grin and bear it.
The speaker also made clear that if he’s fatalistic about a Trump nomination, it isn’t as if the two are going to become political allies. It was the best illustration yet of the uncomfortable position in which Trump has put conservative leaders: stuck with a candidate (and potentially a nominee) whom they don’t want to embrace but can’t openly rebuke. “Now, a little skepticism is healthy,” Ryan said. “But when people distrust politics, they come to distrust institutions. They lose faith in their government. They lose faith in our future. We can acknowledge this. But we can’t accept it. And we can’t enable it either.”
Political discourse, Ryan said, ‘did not used to be this bad, and it does not have to be this way.’
Ryan’s remarks came a week to the day after his friend and kindred spirit Marco Rubio dropped out of the presidential race. The failure of the Rubio campaign made clear that this might not be the year for a candidate who embodies the GOP’s optimistic and opportunity-oriented wing, and Ryan seemed to acknowledge as much. “Personalities come and go, but principles endure,” he said, repeating a favorite theme. “Ideas endure, ready to inspire generations yet to be born.”
But the statement itself comes as the principles that have anchored the Republican party for five decades are being called into question, and with them the future of the party itself. For the first time in living memory, the Republican front-runner opposes free-trade agreements and entitlement reform and vows to pull the country back from its long-standing commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, of which it was a founding member in 1949.
Principles may endure, but their primary vessels — political parties — come and go. Ryan left unanswered the question of whether Trump’s candidacy, to which his remarks served as a tacit rebuke, was an existential challenge to the GOP, and if so how his conference intended to respond. (On Tuesday, six of Ryan’s most conservative colleagues grudgingly told reporters they would support Trump if he became the Republican nominee. The decision, according to Ohio representative Jim Jordan, is “obvious.”)
#share#The speaker said he owed his own optimistic worldview to Jack Kemp — a name some in the audience had probably never heard before — who demonstrated how a “conservative” could visit America’s “bleakest communities” and inspire their citizens with a message of upward mobility. He said it’s that type of unifying, positive message that can restore belief in the political process, and confidence in government itself. Kemp used to urge his colleagues to “provide super leadership and better ideas than the opposition” rather than to insult or berate. Ryan echoed that message on Wednesday, arguing that lawmakers should aspire to “propose a clear and compelling alternative.”
“We don’t just win your support, we win the argument, we win your enthusiasm, we win hearts and minds,” he said.
In the face of Trump’s bluster and bravado, Ryan calmly insisted that his own ideas would endure.
The event was unique, even if the message was not. Ryan was introduced by Elise Stefanik, a 31-year-old congresswoman from upstate New York, who looked not much older than some of the interns in the audience. He called the location of the speech, the House Ways and Means Committee hearing room, “a perfect setting,” because the powerful committee, which he has long dreamed of chairing, was a place where members had debated “some of the biggest, most consequential issues” with civility, regardless of their partisan differences.
“It almost sounds like I’m speaking of another time, doesn’t it?” Ryan asked his youthful audience. “It sounds like a scene unfamiliar to your generation.”
And unfamiliar, he could have said, to some of the candidates on the campaign trail. While Trump has titillated voters with a campaign that is at times X-rated, Ryan’s response at times had him sounding more like a kindergarten teacher, such as when he reminded his audience that people can “disagree without being disagreeable” and that “when someone has a bad idea, we tell them why our idea is better.”
#related#In the face of Trump’s bluster and bravado, Ryan calmly insisted that his own ideas would endure. He talked of a renewed America that doesn’t exist now but will come back into being. In that America, “all of us as leaders can hold ourselves to the highest standards of integrity and decency,” he said. “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.”
That, he said, is the approach a Republican conference under his leadership will take. Under a President Trump, he made clear, they are likely to be at odds. Ryan is betting, against the prevailing wisdom, that he will triumph.
— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review. Tim Alberta is chief political correspondent for National Review.