House Speaker Paul Ryan’s speech to the Republican National Convention was far and away the best thus far. That must be because Ryan had an actual purpose – a purpose, I mean, other than to spout a few platitudes in the hope that no one would remember you had once praised Donald Trump on television. (That was manifestly the case with Tom Cotton and Roger Wicker, among others, on the convention’s first night.) Ryan’s purpose was to recommend Trump’s candidacy without in any way praising the candidate, or in other words to endorse Trump in the abstract without praising the man – indeed, almost without mentioning him at all.
The first of only two direct references to Trump came near the beginning when, poking fun at himself for losing as the GOP’s vice presidential candidate in 2012, Ryan said he’d found things to do since then. “The next time that there’s a State of the Union address,” he said, “I don’t know where Joe Biden or Barack Obama are going to be, but you’ll find me right there on the rostrum with Vice President Mike Pence and President Donald Trump.” As an indirect and somehow lifeless expression of optimism about Trump’s candidacy vis-a-vis Hillary Clinton’s, that could hardly be improved. (The other reference to Trump was similarly understated and similarly coupled with Pence’s name: “Only with Donald Trump and Mike Pence do we have a chance at a better way.”)
It took some ingenuity to interpret the fact that a majority of Republicans dislike their party’s nominee, but that’s what Ryan did in the following paragraph: “Democracy is a series of choices. We Republicans have made our choice. Have we had our arguments this year? Sure, we have. You know what I call those? Signs of life, signs of a party that’s not just going through the motions, not just mouthing new words for the same, old stuff.” Having presented the disaster that is the Trump candidacy as a “sign of life,” Ryan was free to describe the lifelessness of the opposition, and much of the rest of the speech wrote itself.
Indeed, Ryan all but conceded the fact that the GOP had made a regrettable choice in Trump. “Whatever we lack going into this campaign, we should not lack for motivation. In the plainest terms I know, it is all on the line. So let’s act that way.” By “whatever we lack” one assumes he meant: Although our nominee is an unprincipled huckster ...
And there was a wonderful fake-out moment when it sounded as though Ryan would close with a rousing commendation of Trump, but didn’t. “This year of surprises and dramatic turns can end in the finest possible way when America elects ...”
Surely the next words would be “Donald Trump as the next president of the United States,” right?
“This year of surprises and dramatic turns can end in the finest possible way when America elects a conservative governing majority.”
Unlike most of the other speeches in Cleveland, Ryan’s sounded as if thought had gone into it. The phrasing wasn’t formulaic, and the sentiments — even if you disagreed with them — didn’t sound stale. He didn’t speak, for instance, of “the failed policies of the last eight years.” Instead: The Obama administration’s record is one of “discarded promises, empty gestures, phony straw-man arguments, reforms put off forever, shady power plays like the one that gave us Obamacare, constitutional limits brushed off as nothing, and all the while dangers in the world downplayed, even as the threats grow bolder and come closer. It’s the last chapter of an old story. Progressives deliver everything except progress.”
Apart from the redundant “phony” to describe “straw-man arguments,” that was a well-crafted political broadside.
The party’s nominee must have hated the speech, if he heard it. And the probability that Ryan’s speech will be forgotten today – thanks to the commotion occasioned by one of Donald Trump Jr.’s speechwriters having self-plagiarized – is almost certainly just fine with the House speaker.
Barton Swaim was a speechwriter for South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford. He is the author of “The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics.”
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