Page: Paul Ryan’s unifying voice

Clarence Page

J.K. Rowling strongly objects to those who compare Lord Voldemort, Harry Potter’s archenemy in Rowling’s novels, to Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump.

As Potter fans know, Voldemort strikes so much fear into the hearts of other wizards that they refer to him only as “You-Know-Who” or “He Who Must Not Be Named.”

“Voldemort was nowhere near as bad,” Rowling tweeted.

Yet, the Trump-Voldemort comparison seemed to take on new life last week after an important “address on the state of American politics” by House Speaker Paul Ryan.

Many, including me, hoped to see Ryan push back boldly against the wave of name-calling and racist demagoguery that has polluted the presidential race.

But Ryan’s critique stopped short of actually naming the principal cause of this season’s demagoguery: GOP front-runner Donald J. Trump.

Instead, Ryan offered an inspirational alternative to the inflammatory racial, ethnic and gender-baiting rhetoric of He Who Must Not Be Named.

“Instead of playing to your anxieties,” Ryan said, “we can appeal to your aspirations. We don’t resort to scaring you; we dare to inspire you.”

“In a confident America, we aren’t afraid to disagree with each other,” he said. “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.”

Those are wonderful and inspiring sentiments that I am confident He Who Must Not Be Named will resolutely ignore.

Ryan’s words “will ring hollow,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, “until he backs them up with action and withdraws his support from Donald Trump.”

But is that realistic? As one of Ryan’s top advisers on urban and poverty issues reminded me, if Trump fails to win the nomination on the convention’s first ballot, for example, the speaker may well be called upon to help negotiate a brokered convention.

He has to call out bad behavior but also appear to be neutral in treating all of the party’s candidates fairly. Otherwise He Who Must Not Be Named won’t let any of us hear the end of it.

But don’t just look at what Ryan didn’t say, my source said. Listen to what he did say. Ryan’s speech offers a rare instance in Washington of a political leader who admits to having been wrong about something.

“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,” Ryan admitted. “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,” Ryan said. “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.”

It was a speech in which Ryan seemed to be finding his voice as an advocate for problem-solving ideas that can broaden his party’s support base beyond the shrinking demographic to whom He Who Must Not Be Named mostly appeals.

At a time when the GOP is deeply divided between its right and its far-right, a unifying voice of reason is needed more than it ever was.

Clarence Page is a member of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board.