House Speaker Paul Ryan laid out his vision for a more respectful discourse in American politics on Wednesday against the backdrop of a growingly divisive Republican presidential primary.
"Our political discourse—both the kind we see on TV and the kind we experience among each other— it did not use to be this bad and it does not have to be this way," the Wisconsin Republican told a group of bipartisan congressional interns. "Now, a little skepticism that is really healthy. But when people distrust politics, they come to distrust institutions. They lose faith in government; they lose faith in our future. We can acknowledge this. But we don't have to accept this. And we can't enable it either."
While Ryan did not mention GOP frontrunner Donald Trump - or any other candidate - by name, it was evident that Trump's rhetoric over the last few weeks, such as being slow to disavow an association with the Ku Klux Klan and banning Muslims from entering the United States, pushed Ryan into warning "we are slipping into being a divisive country" and to lay out his vision for a more inclusive Republican Party.
Ryan told the students, "personalities come and go, but principles - principles endure. Ideas endure; ready to inspire generations yet to be born."
The speaker, who will serve as chairman of the Republican convention in Cleveland in July, has remained neutral in the presidential race. Recently, he has aggressively sought to tamp down speculation that he could emerge as the GOP nominee if a contested convention this summer ensues, going so far as to issue a cease and desist order to a third party group promoting him as a presidential candidate. However, much of Ryan's speech sought to promote a large-scale vision - a clear desire to move his fractured party into a more positive direction away from negative campaigning.
"Instead of playing to your anxieties, we can appeal to your aspirations. Instead of playing the identity politics of 'our base' versus 'their base,' we unite people around ideas and principles. And instead of being timid, we go bold. We don't just resort to scaring you, we dare to inspire you," he said.
Speaking to a millennial audience, the generation of Americans that puts a special value on authenticity; Ryan admitted he was not always correct in his views. He referenced his early days in Congress when he supported harsh mandatory minimums in sentencing for criminals and said he now feels that "we need to honor redemption, and we need to make redemption that is valued in our culture and in our society and in our laws."
Ryan also said he regretted using the terms, "makers and takers" regarding government benefits in America. "I realized I was wrong. 'Takers' wasn't how to refer to a single mom stuck in a poverty trap, just trying to take care of her family."
Democrats were quick to dismiss Ryan's words as nothing more than hyperbole. A spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Drew Hammill, released a statement before Ryan's speech even ended saying, "The Speaker's 'Year of Ideas' has been marred by the same level of internal Republican dysfunction that dogged his predecessor while a runaway Republican primary constantly reminds the American people of the extreme policy positions advocated by so many in the House Republican Conference."
But Ryan, who took over as speaker in November, clearly sought to not only inspire the young people who were in attendance Wednesday but also to promote his brand of Republican politics for the future.
"We think of politics in terms of this vote or this election. But it can be so much more than that. Politics can be a battle of ideas, not a battle of insults. It can be about solutions. It can be about making a difference. It can be about always striving to do better," Ryan beamed. "It's messy. It's complicated. It's infuriating at times. And it's a beautiful thing too."