By Scott Wong - 03/23/16 12:41 PM EDT
Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanOvernight Finance: GOP faces dilemma on spending bills | CEOs push Congress on tax rules | Trump talks energy Overnight Energy: Trump outlines 'America First' energy plan in North Dakota Bible verse prompts GOP walkout after LGBT vote labeled a sin MORE on Wednesday denounced the "ugliness" of a 2016 presidential race marked by personal insults and violent protests and called on candidates to elevate their campaign rhetoric.
"When passions flair, ugliness is sometimes inevitable," Ryan said in the ornate Ways and Means Committee room, where he previously served as chairman. "But we shouldn't accept ugliness as the norm.
"If someone has a bad idea, we tell them why our idea is better," he added. "We don't insult them into agreeing with us."
The Speaker's comments follow a day during which the party's presidential front-runner, Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump encourages Rubio to reclaim Senate seat Embattled pharma CEO endorses Trump RNC launches ad against 'Crooked Hillary' MORE, threatened rival Ted CruzTed CruzFiorina returns to attack Clinton's 'lust for power' Trump clinches GOP nomination Eleven states sue Obama over transgender bathroom directive MORE's wife on Twitter. Just hours earlier, both candidates said they supported the surveillance of Muslim neighborhoods in the U.S. following terrorist attacks in Brussels.
“All of us as leaders can hold ourselves to the highest standards of integrity and decency. Instead of playing to your anxieties, we can appeal to your aspirations. ...” Ryan said. "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.
“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,” he added. “We win a mandate to do what needs to be done to protect the American Idea.”
Ryan’s 14-minute speech was well-received by the bipartisan congressional interns, but Democrats dismissed it as nothing more than empty rhetoric.
“The ‘Do-Nothing’ Republican Congress is leaving town today for two weeks without taking action on a budget and without addressing the three major public health crises of Zika, opioid addiction and the Flint water crisis,” said Drew Hammill, spokesman for House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.). “Speaker Ryan can talk all he wants, but the total failure of the Republican Congress speaks louder than anything.”
As the ceremonial chairman of this summer’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ryan has remained neutral in the Republican primary.
But the Speaker has publicly rebuked Trump on four separate occasions, including when the GOP front-runner called for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. and when he didn’t forcefully disavow former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.
Some establishment Republicans turned off by the angry rhetoric from both Trump and Cruz have tried to draft Ryan as a dark-horse candidate in the event no candidate can secure enough delegates before Cleveland to win the nomination.
But Ryan has made clear there’s absolutely no scenario in which he would become the GOP nominee.
The prospect of a Trump nomination is causing heartburn for some congressional Republicans who fear that putting the bombastic businessman at the top of the GOP ticket could cost the party control of the Senate — and possibly the House as well.
Citing the uncertainty caused by a Trump nomination, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report last week changed the ratings of 10 House races, putting them all in Democrats’ favor.
But earlier this week, Ryan told reporters he wasn’t at all worried about losing the majority.
"I'm not concerned about the House flipping, because we are in control of our own actions," Ryan said at a news conference. "And that means we're putting together an agenda to take to the country to show what we need to do to get this country back on the right track."
Throughout the campaign, Trump has not apologized for any of his controversial remarks or insults.
Ryan, however, admitted in one of the most powerful lines of his speech Wednesday that he was wrong in previously describing America as a country of “makers” and “takers.”
“As I spent more time listening, and really learning the root causes of poverty, I realized I was wrong,” Ryan said. “‘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.”
Those who have different ideas, Ryan warned, should not be labeled “traitors” or “enemies.” They are neighbors, co-workers, even family members, he said.
Rather than hurling insults at them, Republicans should find ways to persuade them, Ryan said.
The Speaker’s remarks came less than 24 hours after Trump took to Twitter and threatened to “spill the beans” on Cruz’s wife, Heidi. Trump apparently was angered by an anti-Trump super PAC ad that featured a semi-nude picture of his wife, Melania.
Cruz responded in kind, saying Trump would be a “coward” if he attacked the Texas senator's wife.
“Politics can be a battle of ideas, not insults,” Ryan said in his speech. “This is the system our founders envisioned. It’s messy. It’s complicated. It’s infuriating at times. And it’s a beautiful thing too.”
— This report was updated at 2:49 p.m.