Paul Ryan is speaker of the House of Representatives and the de facto leader of the Republican Party. He is liked by all factions, has national name recognition, and will be the chair of the 2016 Republican Convention in Cleveland, where he would play a key role in any contested convention scenario that stops Donald Trump. So when he announced that he would be giving a speech on "the state of American politics" on Wednesday morning, many of us expected he was going to address the elephant in the room.
He did not.
If you read the full text of the speech, you will find zero mentions of the man who's upended the 2016 Republican primary and will likely be the party's standard-bearer in the general election campaign. There's barely even anything in there that could be read as an implicit reference to Trump. Ryan has nothing to say about immigration, racism, xenophobia, misogyny, or violence at political rallies.
Instead, he offers an anodyne call for civility, and to the extent that he rebukes any faction of the Republican Party it's his own ersatz-Randian faction:
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. I shouldn’t castigate a large group of Americans to make a point.
So I stopped thinking about it that way—and talking about it that way. But I didn’t come out and say all this to be politically correct. I was just wrong. And of course, there are still going to be times when I say things I wish I hadn’t. There are still going to be times when I follow the wrong impulse.
What's striking here is that of all the many bad things one might say about Trump's rhetoric, he has never, as far as I am aware, used the makers-versus-takers frame.
What Trump has done is specifically rebuke Mitt Romney for using that frame — the very same Mitt Romney who has emerged, alongside Ted Cruz, as the leader of the Stop Trump movement. In early March, Trump called Romney out:
It was a campaign that should have never been lost. You're running against a failed president. He came up with the 47 percent. He demeaned 47 percent of the people in our country, right? The famous 47 percent. Once that was said, I'll be honest, once that was said, a lot of people thought it was over for him.
It's difficult to know what was going through Ryan's head as he composed this address. Did he intend, at some earlier part in the process, to give an anti-Trump speech and then change his mind? Had he long planned to give a kind of boring speech and then opportunistically teased it as if it was going to be interesting?
It's impossible to say.
But what's clear is that this speech was not an endorsement of Cruz, or a rebuke of Trump, and does nothing to lay the groundwork for taking extraordinary measures to deny the presumptive nominee the nomination.
Given the chance to reflect on the state of national politics, Ryan does not sense an alarming rise in overt racism or anti-Muslim prejudice. Ryan does not feel that anti-immigration sentiment has gone too far. Ryan doesn't even express alarm at the backlash against international trade. Ryan isn't worried about protestors getting beaten up at rallies, and Ryan isn't worried that a leading presidential candidate lies constantly. Ryan just thinks people should be nicer, in general, and that Republicans should say nice things about poor people.
All in all, an excellent day for Trump.