WASHINGTON — House Speaker Paul Ryan on Wednesday decried ugliness and divisiveness in American politics, delivering a veiled but passionate rebuke to GOP front-runner Donald Trump and the nasty tone of the presidential race.
“When passions flare, ugliness is sometimes inevitable. But we shouldn’t accept ugliness as the norm,” Ryan told an invited audience of congressional interns on Capitol Hill.
“If someone has a bad idea, we tell them why our idea is better. We don’t insult them into agreeing with us,” he said.
“We don’t resort to scaring you, we dare to inspire you.”
The Wisconsin Republican never mentioned Trump’s name or that of any other candidate, Republican or Democratic. But his targets were clear in a sometimes frightful campaign season that’s featured insults, sucker punches and near-riots as often as substantive policy debates.
“We are slipping into being a divisive country,” he said. “If we’re going to keep this beautiful American experiment going we’re going to have to stay unified.”
Some of Ryan’s comments nearly echoed remarks last week from President Barack Obama, who voiced dismay at the violence and “vulgar and divisive rhetoric” of this presidential race, and issued a plea for civility.
Still, Democrats wasted no time in criticizing Ryan’s speech, noting that while remaining officially neutral in his party’s presidential primary, Ryan has repeatedly promised to back the eventual GOP nominee. The speaker has also avoided any outright denunciation of Trump even while criticizing several of the businessman’s more extreme positions, such as barring Muslims from entering the country.
“Speaker Ryan’s words will ring hollow until he backs them up with action and withdraws his support from Donald Trump,” said Adam Jentleson, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Ryan’s outwardly neutral stance comes even as other GOP leaders have openly searched for ways to prevent Trump from clinching the nomination before or during the party’s July convention in Cleveland. Ryan, his party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee, has said he is not interested in becoming president and has dismissed growing talk of a contested convention that could turn into a free-for-all for the nomination.
Yet Ryan similarly claimed he never wanted to become speaker. He ended up with the job anyway after John Boehner, R-Ohio, was pushed out by conservatives last fall and a leadership vacuum resulted. As speaker of the House Ryan will have the job of chairing the GOP convention in July.
Ryan took the opportunity Wednesday to voice regrets about his own previous contributions to divisive political discourse. He said that in the past he’d referred to certain people as “takers,” but then thought more about how people could become mired in poverty and dependent on government help. “To label a whole group of Americans that way was wrong,” he said.
He also said he had become a late convert to the need for reforming the criminal justice system and pledged action on the House floor. “Redemption is a beautiful thing,” Ryan said. “We need to make redemption something that is valued in our culture and our society and in our laws.”
Ryan delivered his remarks as lawmakers left town for a two-week spring recess. He spoke in the lofty hearing room of the Ways and Means Committee, which he once chaired.
It was the latest occasion since Ryan became speaker last October that he has summoned his party to unity, and delivered lofty pledges that the House of Representatives will be the vehicle for producing a bold governing vision for the GOP.
Yet divisions within the party have blocked House Republicans from passing a budget for the upcoming fiscal year, an embarrassment for Ryan, and GOP leaders have struggled to come up with meaningful legislation to debate.
Associated Press writers Andrew Taylor and Alan Fram contributed to this report.