Amid a Republican presidential contest that tears at party unity and devolves ever further into a garish, and, at times, profane and violent spectacle, House Speaker Paul Ryan urged Americans to embrace a more dignified and uplifting political discourse based on persuasion, not vitriol.
“Our political discourse, both the kind that we see on TV and the kind that we experience among each other — it did not used to be this bad,” Ryan said in a speech delivered in a House committee room before dozens of Capitol Hill interns. “And it does not have to be this way.”
“Politics can be a battle of ideas, not a battle of insults,” he added. “Instead of playing to your anxieties, we can appeal to your aspirations.”
Ryan, the highest ranking elected Republican in Washington, mentioned no one by name and made no direct reference to the presidential race or any of the partisan battles raging in Washington; but, observers said there was no doubt as to his intended target.
“His [Ryan’s] comments were clearly directed toward Donald Trump,” said political analyst John Hudak of the Brookings Institution. “Clearly, he is disgusted with what Trump is doing rhetorically, politically and to the party.”
“It was also directed toward rank-and-file Republicans [in Congress] and Republicans across the country,” Hudak added.
A businessman and the current Republican presidential front-runner, Trump’s words and actions have caused Republican elders to fret openly about damage to the party’s image.
Since entering the race, Trump has labeled undocumented Mexican immigrants as rapists, endorsed torture to fight terrorism, proposed banning Muslims from entering the United States, spoken in thinly-veiled terms about the size of his genitalia, and made derogatory comments about a female debate moderator.
He regularly refers to his opponents and critics as “losers” — or worse.
In recent weeks, Trump’s rallies have attracted protesters, some of whom have been punched and assaulted by supporters in the crowd.
Ryan is not the first high-profile Republican to speak out. Earlier this month, 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney delivered a speech pointedly rebuking Trump’s persona, his record as a businessman and his ideas.
On Wednesday, Ryan spoke only in general terms. “Looking around at what’s taking place in politics today, it is easy to get disheartened,” Speaker Ryan said. "People with different ideas - they’re not traitors. They’re not our enemies. They’re our neighbors, our coworkers, our fellow citizens."
“Paul Ryan is recognizing the importance and the need for a party leader among Republicans,” Hudak said. “He’s rapidly recognizing that either he will be the party leader or Donald Trump will be the party leader, and that reality likely scares him.”
Some political observers have hypothesized that Republicans could turn to Ryan as the party’s presidential nominee in the event of a deadlocked, contested Republican national convention later this year. When asked, Ryan has downplayed that possibility. He made no mention of his ambitions Wednesday.
“Paul Ryan certainly has presidential aspirations,” Hudak said. “[But] It was not a presidential speech. This was really a message to his party. That said, positioning himself as a party leader is probably the first step toward asserting himself as, perhaps, a dark-horse nominee.”