WASHINGTON – Before House Speaker Paul Ryan’s “Address on the State of American Politics” Wednesday, an aide went to the microphone to instruct the crowd.
“You don’t have to save your applause to the end,” said the aide, Caleb Smith. “If he says something you like – clap. You know? You can stand up. It’s fine.”
Forgive me if I don’t join in the ovation.
Ryan’s speech had the promise of boldness: Would the highest-ranking Republican in government, and the man many Republicans would like to see as their presidential nominee, finally denounce the racist demagogue who threatens to take over the party of Lincoln?
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Alas, no. Ryan tiptoed, floating an alternative to Donald Trump’s hatred but not mentioning the bigoted billionaire by name. “Instead of playing to your anxieties, we can appeal to your aspirations,” the speaker said. “We don’t resort to scaring you; we dare to inspire you.”
“If someone has a bad idea,” Ryan lectured, “we don’t insult them into agreeing with us.”
And who, pray tell, might be the target of this generic piety? One young man, after Ryan’s prepared remarks, asked about the presidential race. “I’m not going to ask you to name names,” he began.
“I’m not going to,” Ryan interjected.
Ryan went out of his way to distribute blame. “How many of you find yourself shaking your head at what you see from both sides of the aisle?” he asked.
That, Mr. Speaker, is weak.
There is, in general, plenty of bad behavior on all sides. But the current crisis is very specific: A xenophobe who makes scapegoats of racial and religious minorities is threatening to take over the Republican Party and to throw the country into turmoil – and Ryan isn’t denouncing him, or even saying he won’t support him.
Instead, Ryan spoke Wednesday of the need to “raise our gaze and aim for a brighter horizon. Instead of talking about what politics is today, I want to talk about what politics can be.” But while Ryan gazes, his party – and his country – burn.
Ryan, I believe, is a decent man. His aides tell me he’s in a tight spot, and it’s true: As chairman of the Republican convention, he will be the enforcer of rules if Trump’s claim to the nomination is challenged – hence Ryan’s desire, as he puts it, “to be Switzerland, to be neutral and dispassionate.” Also, he clearly would, despite his demurrals, like to be the consensus nominee.
But to preserve his neutrality, and his presidential prospects, Ryan is making a corrupt bargain. There is no neutrality between good and evil.
At the moment, the man Ryan refuses to denounce was warning to “spill the beans” about GOP rival Ted Cruz’s wife – threatening an unspecified smear – after a group unaffiliated with Cruz issued an ad featuring an old fashion photo of Trump’s wife. Trump is also supporting Cruz’s proposal that the United States “patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods” while also reiterating his support for torture and for banning Muslims from entering the country.
Ryan’s event was ideal positioning for a nominee-in-waiting. He stood in front of five flags and behind a lectern labeled with the Twitter-friendly labels @SpeakerRyan and #ConfidentAmerica. Two hundred interns filled the seats in the Ways and Means Committee room, where Ryan once presided. He wore a favored baby-blue tie, which brings out his eyes.
Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., 31, the youngest woman to be elected to Congress, introduced him as a “happy warrior” and repeatedly called him Paul. The speakership “was a job he didn’t ask for but answered the call to serve,” she said.
Ryan, owning his establishment manacles, recalled that it was “a big deal” to be on Ways and Means. “We treated each other with respect. … We disagreed without being disagreeable,” he said, contrasting that with the toxic discourse undermining government. “We don’t have to accept it, and we cannot enable it,” Ryan said.
Yet Ryan is enabling it. “What role do you think members of Congress have in bringing the nation together?” one of the interns asked.
“It is not our job simply to say we are just as angry as the rest of everybody else, to put gas on the fire,” he said. At another point, he asserted: “I think how we conduct ourselves is very important, and we set an example and lead by example.”
Right. But leading by example means denouncing and disowning the demagogue in our midst. This is no time to play Switzerland.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.