In "The Wizard of Oz," Dorothy waxes about a place “where there isn’t any trouble.” She wonders aloud to Toto if such a locale even exists. But Dorothy concludes “it’s far, far away.”
Naturally, this elusive venue can only be found “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is a little like Dorothy as he laments the state of American politics these days. The system belches invective, noxious rhetoric and even violence. Ryan, too, yearns for a political bailiwick bereft of discontent. A place where “politics can be a battle of ideas. Not insults.”
Ryan made the case for such a place Wednesday. He spoke to several hundred Capitol Hill interns about the state of American politics, in the cavernous House Ways and Means Committee room in the Longworth Office Building.
The room is an iconic setting for Ryan. The speaker scored a plum assignment on the tax-writing committee in just his second term. He ascended to chairman early last year – yielding the gavel only to assume the speakership.
Ryan is quintessentially Ways and Means … and Ways and Means is quintessentially Ryan.
“It’s a big deal to be on this committee,” said the Wisconsin Republican. “It is here, in this committee, that we debate some of the biggest, most consequential issues. Our tax code. Health care. Trade. Entitlement programs. Welfare reform.”
Ryan’s most comfortable talking policy. Numbers. Economics. Budgets. And if lawmakers and voters could debate issues of substance – nicely – better yet.
But you can’t divorce politics from policy. Certainly not this year. The presidential race tugs at Ryan like a tractor beam. For now, the very concept of propriety in American politics is lost somewhere over the rainbow.
Before Ryan’s address, the interns fidgeted in their seats, bedecked in preppy suits and Vineyard Vines neckties. Stern U.S. Capitol Police officers stood post at hearing room entrances and near the dais, as though preparing for the arrival of a foreign dignitary. The Speaker’s Office distributed tickets similar to those handed out for a speech before a Joint Meeting of Congress.
“The State of American Politics,” read the ducats. “Capitol Hill ID Required for Entry.”
The hashtag “#Confident America” was emblazoned at the bottom of each ticket.
TV game shows and sitcoms have long deployed a warmup comedian to engage the crowd before the main event. The comedian is there to set the tone, loosen everyone up and encourage reactions once they go on the air.
Ryan’s digital director Caleb Smith played the warmup role just before the speaker appeared.
“I thought this was going to be a live audience,” said Smith to the assembly when the interns gave him a tepid response.
Smith encouraged the crowd to tweet, Snapchat or even “do the wave,” if possible during Ryan’s speech.
“This is not your high school graduation. You don’t have to save your applause until the end,” instructed Smith. “If he says something you like, clap. You can stand up.”
Smith implored them to tag @speakerryan and drop the hashtag a #confidentamerica on Twitter.
The group clapped politely when Ryan entered the room from behind the rostrum. But Smith’s exhortations to orchestrate spontaneous reactions stumbled. The crowd never interrupted Ryan with applause once. There was a lonely, stray clap off to the side when Ryan spoke about faith. But after 14 minutes of prepared remarks and six questions from the floor, the interns only clapped when Smith himself started the applause at the end of Ryan’s final answer.
For months, Ryan said he hoped to influence whomever the Republican nominee would be with good policies and ideas from the House of Representatives. That’s why some observers argued Ryan’s speech was detached from realpolitik. Was this the first step by Ryan to sketch a sunny disposition for Republicans should Donald Trump’s scorched earth method fail spectacularly this fall? Was this a Ryan effort to distance himself from Trump and salvage the remains of the old GOP in the future? Perhaps in his own presidential bid? Or was this just all aspirational? A hope and dream for how Ryan would like things to be.
“The Speaker’s ‘Year of Ideas’ has been marred by the same level of internal Republican dysfunction that dogged his predecessor while a runaway Republican primary constantly reminds the American people of the extreme policy positions advocated by so many in the House Republican Conference,” excoriated Pelosi’s spokesman, Drew Hammill.
Some may interpret Hammill’s broadside as indicative of the civility problem Ryan described in his speech. But actions speak louder than words. Hashtags and stage-managed applause attempts are no substitute for robust legislation on the floor.
In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy sings hopefully that this mythical place free of trouble exists. By the same token, Paul Ryan dreams to forge a political crucible which focuses on policy, augmented by an intense but polite exchange of ideas.
But in this political environment, those dreams are nothing more than escapism -- perhaps only found “somewhere over the rainbow.”
Capitol Attitude is a weekly column written by members of the Fox News Capitol Hill team. Their articles take you inside the halls of Congress, and cover the spectrum of policy issues being introduced, debated and voted on there.