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Paul Ryan remains reluctant to hold Trump responsible for his rhetoric

The retiring House Speaker may not want to invest too much time in writing an acceptance speech for his "Profile in Courage" Award.
Image: U.S. President Trump listens to  Speaker Ryan as he gathers with Republican House members after healthcare bill vote at the White House in Washington
U.S. President Donald Trump (C) listens to House Speaker Paul Ryan (L) as he gathers with Congressional Republicans in the Rose Garden of the White House...

In an interview that aired yesterday on "Face the Nation," CBS News' John Dickerson asked House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) about Donald Trump's efforts to "sow division" within the nation. The retiring Wisconsin congressman was willing to concede he "sometimes" sees the president engage in such behavior at his rallies. It led to an interesting exchange:

RYAN: Well, not always but sometimes. I worry about tribal identity politics becoming the new norm of how politics is waged. As conservatives we always thought this was sort of a left wing, Alinsky thing. Unfortunately, the right practices identity politics now as well. It's the day and age, it's technology and everything else -- identity politics, which is now being practiced on both sides of the aisle, is, unfortunately, working. And I think we, as leaders, we've got to figure out how do we make inclusive aspirational politics strategically valuable again?DICKERSON: You've talked about inclusive politics which tries to unify. Does President Trump practice those kind of politics?RYAN: Sometimes he does and sometimes he doesn't.

The retiring House Speaker may not want to invest too much time in writing an acceptance speech for his "Profile in Courage" Award.

Part of the problem, of course, is that Paul Ryan is well aware of reality, but he's reluctant to say out loud what's plainly true. The GOP leader's congressional career is coming to an end in a few months, which theoretically suggests Ryan could feel more freedom to speak his mind, but he still can't bring himself to encourage the president to follow a more responsible course.

But just as unsettling is how poor a messenger Ryan is for a message that's critical of "tribal identity politics."

Ryan seems eager to position himself as a bookend to Donald Trump: the president at one end of Pennsylvania Avenue may rely on a strategy of fear and division, but the House leader wants to rise above the nonsense and the ugliness.

It's be easier to take this seriously if Ryan's record didn't get in the way. As we discussed several weeks ago, this isn’t necessarily new. The Wisconsin congressman, whose career on Capitol Hill has spanned nearly two decades, has long been one of the House’s most bitter partisans. Indeed, Ryan’s rise to power has been fueled by the same “invective” he's now denouncing: he’s not only condemned Social Security as “a collectivist system,” he blasted Social Security’s Democratic champions as “collectivist, class warfare-breathing demagogues.”

Ryan also famously divided the public into what he saw as two camps: “makers” and “takers.”

But we don’t necessarily have to look to the past to appreciate the hypocrisy of Ryan's message. We need only to turn on our televisions in swing districts. As Politico recently reported:

Democratic House candidate Jason Crow received a Bronze Star for heroism in Iraq and a “lawyer of the year” award for his veterans advocacy. But according to his GOP adversaries, he has “neglected” Colorado veterans.Virginia Democrat Abigail Spanberger spent nearly a decade fighting terrorists as an undercover CIA officer. But to hear Republicans tell it, she harbors terrorist sympathies.Attacks ads have always been a staple of campaign season. But Republicans have twisted facts in some ads to an extraordinary degree as they fight to save their House majority, weaving narratives about Democratic candidates that are misleading at best — or blatantly false at worst.In several ads, military vets – who count as some of Democrats’ best recruits to defeat sitting Republicans this year – have had their patriotism called into question. One spot insinuates that Spanberger, who is challenging Rep. Dave Brat’s (R-Va.), has ties to extremists because she taught at a Saudi Arabian-funded Muslim school where two infamous terrorists once attended. The CIA not only knew about the job, but later hired Spanberger and employed her for eight years.

Much of the ugly attack ads have been created by a Republican super PAC called the Congressional Leadership Fund, which -- you guessed it -- is closely affiliated with Paul Ryan’s House Republican leadership.

The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, taking stock of the Congressional Leadership Fund’s messaging, wrote a column last month asking, “So this is how retiring House Speaker Paul D. Ryan wishes to leave public service: with lies, name-calling and racism?”

The answer, it turns out, is maybe. Ryan may prefer to leave public service while pretending to be disappointed by tribalism and hysterical demagoguery, but the Congressional Leadership Fund’s ads tell us a great deal about what the House Speaker is prepared to tolerate in the name of victory.

It's something he and Donald Trump apparently have in common.