Paul Ryan Reminds Everyone That Politics Don't Have to Be This Nasty

The new leader of the US House told young Capitol Hill interns: “It did not used to be this bad and does not have to be this way.”
March 23, 2016, 5:30pm
Photo by Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

House Speaker Paul Ryan has had enough.

The new leader of the US House gave a rare speech on Wednesday, calling for an end to divisiveness in a campaign year that has been characterized by politicians suggesting that police target "Muslim neighborhoods," labeling each other as "losers," and targeting one another's wives(and that's just this week).

Ryan blamed both parties for the increased "ugliness" of US politics, pointing not just to the presidential campaign trail, but the broader and increasingly tense political discourse in the country over the last several years.

The American people are rightly angry, Ryan said, but politicians should not just say that they're angry too. "It is not our job to just put gas on the fire," he said.

Ryan is the ideal of the Republican "happy warrior" in Congress. He is friendly and well-liked on Capitol Hill, despite policy differences, and has always been happier talking budget numbers and intricate federal policy than politics.

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But now, after much cajoling by his colleagues, he is the Speaker of the House. And as it goes with superheroes, with great power comes great responsibility.

Ryan, who has worked in the House for two decades, knows that nothing in politics is going to change overnight and probably not any time soon. So he addressed his remarks on Wednesday to a room of young Capitol Hill interns, many of whom are in college. Ryan was introduced by Republican US Representative from New York Elise Stefanik, 31, who became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress last year.

Ryan focused his remarks on young people, who he hopes will one day take over and reform the nasty political process.

"It did not used to be this bad and does not have to be this way," Ryan told the young interns.

Ryan spoke of his early years on Capitol Hill, in the late 1990s when politics was certainly tense, but he argued that at the time "we disagreed without being disagreeable."

"[I]t almost sounds like I'm speaking of another time, doesn't it? It sounds like a scene unfamiliar to your generation," he said.

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Ryan didn't make overt references to any of the presidential candidates, but repeatedly spoke of a politics of "integrity and decency" in which "instead of playing to your anxieties," politicians should "appeal to your aspirations."

"We don't resort to scaring you, we dare to inspire you. We don't just oppose someone or something," Ryan said. "We propose a clear and compelling alternative. And when we do that, we don't just win the argument. We don't just win your support. We win your enthusiasm. We win hearts and minds."

People with opposing political views, Ryan added, aren't "enemies" or "traitors," they're often friends and members of one's own family.

Ryan warned the college-aged interns against locking themselves in an "echo chamber," arguing that far too often now in America, individuals only read and watch what they agree with and think of those who disagree as merely wrong. Challenging your ideas, he emphasized, is important.

The 46-year-old speaker gave a personal example, pointing to the way he used to talk about poverty.

"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," he said.

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But after spending more time looking into the issue and, over the last two years, focusing much of his free time on meeting with poor people and their advocates, Ryan 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," he said.

In general, Ryan said that Republicans and Democrats "overcompensated… on some of our criminal justice laws" in the 1990s. He has now met many young men whose lives were "destroy[ed]" by long prison terms for nonviolent crimes and mandatory minimum sentencing. Now, as the leader of the US House, he is working on criminal justice reform, an issue that has support in both parties in the House and Senate, but has yet to move forward through Congress.

"We need to make redemption something that is valued in our society and in our laws… Our laws got this wrong," he said.

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Ryan, who was Mitt Romney's running mate in 2012, tops many Republican wishlists as a presidential candidate and this speech will likely only inflame those desires. Former House Speaker John Boehner said just a week ago that he would support Ryan for president in the event of a contested convention.

But, as with becoming speaker, Ryan has said he has no interest in entering the 2016 fray. For now, he's just try to mitigate the damage.