Ryan: No mention of Trump but warns of 'ugliness' in politics

Story highlights

  • Paul Ryan gave a speech Wednesday on the state of American politics, speaking mostly to interns and the press
  • "We shouldn't accept ugliness as the norm," the Wisconsin Republican said in a bluntly worded address

(CNN)Without mentioning Donald Trump by name, House Speaker Paul Ryan repeatedly warned Wednesday the presidential race is dividing the country and urged GOP candidates to offer solutions instead of campaigning on the politics of fear.

"We shouldn't accept ugliness as the norm," the Wisconsin Republican said in a bluntly worded address about the "state of politics" to an audience made up mostly of congressional interns but aimed squarely at the adults in his party who are running for the White House in a campaign marked by name calling and profanity.
Recounting his early days working on Capitol Hill as a young staffer, Ryan said: "It did not used to be this bad and it does not have to be this way."
    Ryan, the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee, has been floated as a possible alternative to Trump as the GOP presidential candidate. He insists he's not interested and says that one of the candidates running for president should get the nomination. Even though he has felt the need to repudiate comments or positions taken by Trump on three separate occasions, the speaker still says he will back Trump if he wins the GOP nomination.
    But his comments on Wednesday sounded like something coming more from a candidate frustrated with the negative tone on the 2016 campaign trail than an observer.
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    "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," Ryan said, from a podium in the ornate hearing room where he once presided over the powerful tax writing committee.
    Much of Ryan's message wasn't new -- he has a stressed similar themes in a speech shortly after his election last fall outlining a "Confident America."
    But the speech comes at a moment when Trump has what many believe is unstoppable momentum to become the Republican Party's standard bearer in the November election, as he scorches his competitors with personal insults and belittling nicknames.
    "We are slipping into being a divisive country," Ryan said. "We are speaking to each other in echo chambers where we only talk to people who agree with us and we think that there is something wrong with people who don't agree with us."
    Ryan admitted he didn't always take his own advice. He candidly recounted how he once referred to American society as made up of "makers" and "takers" -- referring to the divide between those who create jobs and those who receive government assistance.
    "As I spent more time listening, and really learning the root causes of poverty, I realized I was wrong," Ryan said. "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."
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    He also confessed he was a "late convert" on criminal justice reform proposals. He said his party "overcompensated" on the issue in the 1990's when he first began his career in public service but creating "mandatory minimums" and "three strikes" laws which he said ended up ruining some people's lives and damaging many communities.
    "Redemption is a beautiful thing, it's a great thing," Ryan said, and said he would bring legislation to amend criminal sentencing laws to the House floor.
    Top Democrats on Capitol Hill were quick to criticize Ryan's speech because he denounced the political environment, but not the person they believe created it.
    "Speaker Ryan is speechifying on the deck of the Titanic, running a do-nothing Congress while supporting Donald Trump, a racist demagogue, for president. Speaker Ryan's words will ring hollow until he backs them up with action and withdraws his support from Donald Trump," Adam Jentleson, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said in a written statement.
    House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's office denounced the speaker for sending the House on a spring recess before voting on any measures on the budget, resources to address Zika, the water crisis in Flint, Michigan or the opioid epidemic.
    "Speaker Ryan can talk all he wants, but the total failure of the Republican Congress speaks louder than anything," Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said.
    Ryan didn't discuss current debates on fiscal policy, but used the speech to stress his contribution to the 2016 campaign -- his effort to craft a policy agenda for the eventual Republican nominee.
    "It is not our job to just put gas on the fire," Ryan said about the uneasiness among the electorate, saying the role of House Republicans was to come up with ways to fix the problems that Americans are so upset about.