House Speaker Paul Ryan laid out his vision for a more respectful discourse in American politics on Wednesday against the backdrop of an increasingly 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."
It's understandable if House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is feeling frustrated. His party appears likely to nominate a political amateur and former reality-show host as its presidential candidate. The House chamber the Speaker leads does very little meaningful work. The sitting president at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue doesn't seem to care for any of Ryan's far-right ideas.
And so the GOP leader decided it was time to deliver a speech, not on any one area of public policy, but about the state of politics itself. NBC News reported:
On the surface, few would object to a sentiment like this. Indeed, if I'd told you that the above quote had come from a Democratic leader who disagrees with Paul Ryan about everything, you'd likely believe it. There's just nothing objectionable about wanting a better political discourse and taking steps to bolster Americans' confidence in public institutions.
Indeed, Beltway pundits very likely swooned when Ryan acknowledged his own shortcomings.
"There was a time when I would talk about a difference between 'makers' and 'takers' in our country, referring to people who accepted government benefits," the Speaker said. "But as I spent more time listening, and really learning the root causes of poverty, 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. Most people don't want to be dependent. And to label a whole group of Americans that way was wrong. I shouldn't castigate a large group of Americans to make a point."
But before anyone gives Ryan too much credit for at least saying the right things, it's worth understanding the fundamental flaws in his latest pitch.
At the outset, let's not forget that this wasn't the first time Ryan acknowledged the problem with his "makers/takers" rhetoric. On the contrary, he's made this concession repeatedly for a couple of years now.
And while it's welcome for any political leader to commit to more constructive and less offensive rhetoric, the problem with the "makers/takers" framework has always extended beyond the Republican congressman's choice of words. What mattered was the ideology and policy agenda that was shaped by Ryan's far-right vision -- an agenda that led the Wisconsin lawmaker to believe the nation desperately needs to cut taxes on the wealthy, again, while slashing public investments in those who are struggling, again.
The Speaker's remarks yesterday called for a rhetorical, not a substantive, shift. In other words, Ryan still wants the same agenda, shaped by his "makers/takers" assumptions, but he'd like us all to be nicer while debating it.
The Republican leader wants American politics to change, but only in superficial ways. He and his party still want the same regressive policies they've pushed for years, but Ryan sees value in doing so with respect and without insults. It's a message predicated on the assumption that a far-right agenda might be more palatable if GOP officials presented it more politely.
The party's radical platform doesn't need to change, the argument goes, it just needs shiny, new paint.
This isn't to say rhetoric is irrelevant. I've long believed language matters, words have power, and rhetoric has the ability to inspire people to do important things. But what's ailing American politics goes well beyond politicians who are too often rude and disrespectful. The far more important problems relate to the radicalization of Republican policies and a refusal to work constructively on substantive challenges. On these more pressing problems, Ryan was silent.
Indeed, perhaps the most alarming aspect of the GOP leader's speech was the context in which it was given. Ryan, who's made clear several times his discomfort with Donald Trump's brand of politics, said yesterday, "Instead of playing to your anxieties, we can appeal to your aspirations. We don't resort to scaring you; we dare to inspire you."
What he neglected to mention is that Ryan fully intends to support Trump's presidential campaign if the frontrunner wins the Republican nomination -- even if Trump plays to voters' anxieties, even if he resorts to trying to scare the public.
The Speaker wants to ensure that leaders avoid "enabling" the worst in our politics, but when Ryan commits to supporting Trump, no matter how offensive the candidate becomes, the result has an unmistakable enabling effect.
Yesterday, in other words, was a hollow, ultimately meaningless, call for better politics.