Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Paul Ryan prepares a post-election GOP, rebuilt on higher ground

Kudos to House Speaker Paul Ryan, who sees the tragic course that his party has committed itself to taking and is already preparing the message that it will need in the aftermath.

In a speech this morning to House interns that his office suggested was meant for a much broader audience, Ryan expressed sincere regret and concern for the state of modern politics. He recalled an earlier, better time in Washington politics, a time when ideas mattered and when "we always held ourselves to a higher standard of decorum."

"We treated each other with respect," he told the interns. "We disagreed—often fiercely so—but we disagreed without being disagreeable. ... it almost sounds like I’m speaking of another time, doesn’t it? It sounds like a scene unfamiliar to your generation."

Ryan talked of the need for a renewed faith in politics, government institutions and leaders, warning that when people lose faith in those things, they lose faith in the future too. Such loss of faith is now rampant, he said, "but we don’t have to accept it. And we cannot enable it either."

Most of all, he stressed the need for a new style of leadership that is diametrically opposed to that now being practiced on the national stage, a style in which would-be leaders "hold ourselves to the highest standards of integrity and decency."

"We don’t resort to scaring you, we dare to inspire you.  We don’t just oppose someone or something. We propose a clear and compelling alternative. ... We question each other’s ideas—vigorously—but we don’t question each other’s motives.  If someone has a bad idea, we don’t think they’re a bad person. We just think they have a bad idea. 

People with different ideas are not traitors. They are not our enemies. They are our neighbors, our coworkers, our fellow citizens.  Sometimes they’re our friends. Sometimes they’re even our own flesh and blood, right?  We all know someone we love who disagrees with us politically, or votes differently.

"But in a confident America, we aren’t afraid to disagree with each other.  We don’t lock ourselves in an echo chamber, where we take comfort in the dogmas and opinions we already hold.  We don’t shut down on people—and we don’t shut people down.  If someone has a bad idea, we tell them why our idea is better.  We don’t insult them into agreeing with us.  We try to persuade them. We test their assumptions.  And while we’re at it, we test our own assumptions too."

Ryan did not explicitly direct his comments at any one party or at individual candidates, but the act of naming names wasn't necessary. Anybody who has paid any attention to American politics over the last quarter century knows exactly to whom he was referring. To cite just one example, the contrast between Ryan's words and those of a GOP predecessor as speaker, Newt Gingrich, could not be more stark.

To his further credit, Ryan acknowledged that this wisdom is relatively new, even for him.

"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. 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."

Again, it isn't necessary to name names to know the target for such words.  In fact, judging from some of the comments posted at Ryan's website in response to his speech, the implicit message came through loud and clear, and was quite unwelcome.

"Ryan is a good democrat," complained one citizen, as if only Democrats would say such things.

"Ryan is a proud cuckservative -- he thinks it's more important to be "nice" than to revitalize America and save the middle class," wrote a second.

"So to inspire you, we are going to ignore the will of the people and continue selling out our country and bringing in Muslims and illegals," responded a third. "....oh and do everything we can to steal the nomination so we can stay in power. How do you know when Ryan is lying? His lips are moving. Dirtbag!"

"Mr. Ryan, is a typical, highly over-paid jackass," wrote a fourth. "America went to Germany to kill the socialists. Now we have a socialist running for president (bum Bernie). America went to Korea and Viet Nam to kill communists. Now, we have one running for president (baby-eater Hillary). Washington, D.C. is an inbred cesspool of slime, interested ONLY in themselves. I will not be civil to the enemies of the United States."

"Ryan is a traitor," concludes a fifth. "Remember him."

When a simple but heartfelt call for civility is condemned as an act of partisan betrayal, you know something has gone seriously awry. But those are the voices that now dominate Ryan's party and that now typify too much of our political discourse.  Those are the attitudes that the GOP has legitimized and mainstreamed in its effort to hold power, and as Ryan seems to understand, those are also the attitudes that should condemn it to electoral disaster this fall.

Such critics aside, Ryan is not a Democrat, liberal or even moderate, not by any legitimate definition of those terms.  The ideas that he seeks to champion are profoundly conservative, and I disagree strongly with most of them. But I give him immense credit for saying what needs to be said, and for trying to prepare the ground for one day rebuilding his party and movement on higher ground.

Clearly, a lot of people are not ready to hear that yet. Ryan's hope, and mine, is that will change after November.

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.