In Columbia, S.C., on Saturday, House speaker Paul Ryan teamed with Senator Tim Scott and the Jack Kemp Foundation to host six Republican presidential candidates in discussing an issue that’s been largely absent from the 2016 White House race: poverty.
Ryan made it known in 2012, as Mitt Romney’s running mate, that he wanted to visit urban centers and discuss personal empowerment and upward mobility — just as his mentor, Kemp, had famously done decades earlier. But Romney’s campaign rejected that idea, leaving Ryan convinced that Republicans were not doing enough to show they cared about the poor.
I sat down with Ryan on the eve of the Columbia forum to discuss the lessons of that campaign, his efforts to start a conversation on poverty, and how House Republicans can shape the 2016 election. Excerpts of that conversation follow, edited for length and clarity. — TA
TIM ALBERTA: Politics is often the art of reacting to prior events. Does your emphasis on poverty now, heading into the 2016 election, represent a course correction for the party after your experience with the Romney campaign in 2012?
PAUL RYAN: This is something I’ve always cared about. But it’s something that I think needed even more emphasis after my experience in 2012, because we have a bifurcated country, we have a polarized country. One of the reasons I think it’s polarized is because of identity politics on the left. Now some on the right are playing it.
ALBERTA: Who on the right is playing identity politics?
RYAN: I’m not gonna — that’s as far as I’m gonna go. But I think it’s extremely polarizing, it’s very dangerous to our country. More importantly, we have not done our job on this. So I decided in 2013 I was going to get back into this, like I did when I was a young staffer for Jack. You know, [earlier in my career] I got focused on trying to balance the budget, and we had a debt crisis — everybody gets busy doing their thing. I just thought [after the 2012 election] that this is so needed for the country, but more importantly, this is a problem that needs solving. And we have good answers and good solutions.
ALBERTA: Are there warring camps in the Republican party on the issue of poverty, in terms of whether it needs to be addressed?
RYAN: I don’t see these as camps. Some of us are a little more focused on it, some of us believe we should emphasize it more.
ALBERTA: But it hasn’t been emphasized at all.
RYAN: Well, I learned this from Jack. And there was a gaping hole when Jack left, it just fell off for 15 years maybe — for an era, it just fell off for an era. Part of it was the success of conservatism in welfare reform, part of it was war and terrorism. But part of it was intellectual lethargy on our part as a movement. A lot of it was that. And I think it’s extremely valuable for us to reignite this part of conservatism, which is principled and caring and brings the heart back to the heart and soul of conservatism.
ALBERTA: Why have Democrats owned this issue?
‘We have to sell conservatism to non-conservatives. We have to take our principles and apply them to problems and go sell them to people. We need to show that we have better ideas.’
RYAN: We’ve been missing in the poverty-fighting space. The poverty-fighting space is a monopoly for the Left, which, to their philosophy — they nationalized the issue, pushed the power to Washington to unelected bureaucrats and missed the key part of it all, which is individual empowerment and economic opportunity and growth. . . . Of all the things where I’m excited about a renaissance where conservative principles are applied, it’s fighting poverty and restoring upward mobility, which unifies the country, gets us back to growth and brings people on the sidelines — who we’re missing out on [using] their talents — into the economy, and creates a more vibrant, dynamic society.
ALBERTA: This is a political necessity for Republicans as well, isn’t it? Are you trying to re-brand the party in the eyes of low-income Americans?
RYAN: I don’t see it as that. I think it’s a reapplication of conservatism. We’re trying to reintroduce conservatism to people who have never been exposed to it before and who need it the most. I don’t think of myself as a political brander. If we’re going to save the American idea, we need to win elections. So I’ll concede that point. And in order to do that we have to sell conservatism to non-conservatives. We have to take our principles and apply them to problems and go sell them to people. We need to show that we have better ideas. So yeah, we need to win converts to our cause, and this does help do that. But it’s not me sitting over at the RNC thinking, “Gee, what can get us three more points in Nevada?” I don’t think like that.
ALBERTA: Describe the damage done in 2012. Why has this been such an effective issue for Democrats to exploit?
RYAN: I think the identity politics that have been played, particularly the class-warfare version of identity politics that has been played, has put America into a class-based society — more so than at any point in my lifetime. I believe the other side played identity politics and class warfare with 21st-century technology to devastating effect, and that’s one of the reasons why we lost. And so I think it’s important to counter that . . . not from a perspective of political tactics, but from a perspective of moral outrage that it produces miserable results and a downward spiral of the national experiment.
ALBERTA: So what do you hope to accomplish with this forum, and by spotlighting poverty?
‘My goal here is to get our candidates talking about these issues, talking about poverty and upward mobility and how we have better solutions.’
RYAN: My goal with this with Tim [Scott] is to try and reinject a Jack Kemp vibe into the Republican party at this time of need. So my goal here is to get our candidates talking about these issues, talking about poverty and upward mobility and how we have better solutions, so that people realize the action is on our side of the aisle, that the battle of ideas is being fought here in our party.
ALBERTA: A skeptic would say that after this forum concludes and the cameras turn off and the candidates go back on the trail, the issue of poverty will disappear from the discussion.
RYAN: We’re taking some important steps in the right direction. And I think in Congress we’re going to keep moving on this issue. We’re going to keep this agenda going in the House for sure. This isn’t just a one-and-done effort.
ALBERTA: Is the House going to pass legislation this year addressing poverty? Are we going to see a welfare-reform bill come to the floor for a vote?
RYAN: I’m not worried about that because it won’t go anywhere with a liberal progressive in the White House. What I care about is setting us up so we can get these things done in 2017. And getting them done in 2017 means committing ourselves to them in 2016. I want to commit ourselves to a course of action — of principles and policies — in ’16 so that we can run on them and get permission from the country, and therefore the mandate, to do them in ’17.
ALBERTA: So nothing this year?
RYAN: I’m looking to fix the country’s problems from our perspective, and that means a new president and a good Congress. And that means doing everything we can to maximize our ability to actually get these into law. Which means you have to wait till 2017 to get new laws.
ALBERTA: You clearly want to help shape the presidential race. Will you lobby the eventual Republican nominee to do what Romney didn’t do — visit cities and campaign beyond the base?
RYAN: Absolutely. Yes I will. I think conservatives should be confident in our beliefs and go push them everywhere we can and go to non-traditional communities. It’s a no-brainer.
— Tim Alberta is the chief political correspondent for National Review.