Politics & Policy

Paul Ryan, Haunted by the Past and Concerned for the GOP’s Future, Puts Poverty in the Spotlight

(Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty)

Columbia, S.C. — Paul Ryan isn’t running for president in 2016, but that’s not stopping him from attempting to set the agenda for his Republican party, or from trying to prevent its eventual nominee from repeating the mistakes his running mate, Mitt Romney, made four years ago.

Even before the 2012 nominee’s infamous “47 percent” remark, Ryan had grown immensely frustrated with Romney’s brain trust for not allowing him to visit urban areas to discuss poverty, as his mentor, Jack Kemp, had done in decades past. Haunted by that experience, and by the branding of the GOP as insensitive and uncompassionate, Ryan set out quietly after the November loss to immerse himself in the issue. Away from cameras and reporters, he toured the nation’s poorest neighborhoods and consulted experts on the successes and failures of the 50-year-old War on Poverty, resolving to return to Washington and bring the issue to the fore.

The culmination of those efforts was visible Saturday morning, in a ballroom here in the South Carolina capital, as Ryan teamed with Tim Scott, the state’s junior senator, to host a discussion on poverty with six presidential candidates in a forum sponsored by the Jack Kemp Foundation. In an interview with National Review the previous evening, Ryan made clear that he was trying not only to articulate a fresh vision for the GOP heading into 2016 but to settle unfinished business from 2012.

“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,” Ryan says, sitting in a downtown hotel conference room. “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.”

Ryan smirks, knowing he’s opened a can of worms; he refuses to say who exactly on “the right” he’s referring to. But it’s not difficult to read between the lines. As Ryan says these very words, 6,000 people are gathering an hour north in Rock Hill, S.C., at a Donald Trump rally. There, a Muslim woman who stands in silent protest will be booed and kicked out, making national news on the eve of a Ryan event aimed at offering big-tent solutions and softening the party’s image.

Trump, notably, declined Ryan’s invitation to attend Saturday’s forum — as did the other leading Republican candidate, Ted Cruz. But many of the GOP contenders did come: Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Ben Carson, and Mike Huckabee. (Carly Fiorina was confirmed for the event but missed her flight to South Carolina.) Their attendance heartened Ryan and Scott, who presented themselves as the leaders of a forward-looking Republican party who could not help but view Saturday’s event as a new theater in the struggle for its soul.

The uniqueness of the gathering was significant and self-evident: Unlike dozens of cattle calls large and small for Republican candidates over the past year, the audience here looked something like America, with black and brown faces, plenty of them youthful, peppered throughout. The format was distinctive as well: Rather than sticking candidates behind a lectern for 20 minutes of talking points, Ryan and Scott sat them down on stage for freewheeling chats on several panels, neutralizing (at least somewhat) the tendency to tackle questions with 60-second sound bites.

Rather than sticking candidates behind a lectern, Paul Ryan and Tim Scott sat the candidates down on stage for freewheeling chats.

The first panel featured stories from Ben Carson about his “hating poverty” while growing up destitute in Detroit and then, reading biographies of celebrated self-made men, he realized his own capacity for self-determination. Chris Christie said he could relate, sharing that both of his parents came from penniless, single-family homes and instilled in their children a compassion for the poor. Jeb Bush had no such family struggle but leaned on his education legacy — revamping Florida’s schools and creating a voucher program that lifted achievement for low-income and minority students — as proof that even Republicans who have not known poverty are nonetheless working to combat it.

Huckabee, who grew up impoverished in Hope, Ark., had the second panel to himself (owing to Fiorina’s absence) and offered a subtle reminder that poverty is not just an urban issue. He spoke of reforming sentencing guidelines as governor, having been convinced that the state was wasting money and God-given potential by locking up non-violent offenders whose crimes were driven by addiction to drugs or alcohol. This proved a theme throughout the day, with Christie, Kasich, and others arguing for the treatment, not incarceration, of such people, and Ryan pointing out that conservatives are teaming with President Obama on criminal-justice reforms.

#share#The event was not without partisan undertones; speakers offered stock critiques of “the Left,” including teachers’ unions, and bemoaned the ideologies of Obama and Hillary Clinton. But by and large it reflected Ryan’s vision for a positive, proactive agenda at a time when the Republican field is led by two candidates, Trump and Cruz, whom party leaders fear will drive away the ascendant demographic groups they must appeal to in order to win back the White House.

“Where did the party of Jack Kemp go? Is it still out there?” Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina senator and recently retired presidential candidate, asked the audience Saturday. The answer, at times, seemed a resounding yes; candidate after candidate spoke of lifting the poor and engaging with minority communities. Yet familiar obstacles were visible amid the positivity. Young Hispanic protesters interrupted Rubio at least five times during his panel, chanting about his alleged plans to deport them and their families, injecting a sense of tension into the room.

Interestingly, during the final panel, both Rubio and Kasich offered more explicitly political cases related to remaking the Republican party in the image of an inclusive, aspirational America. Kasich expressed dismay at the removal of the Muslim woman from Trump’s rally; Rubio said at one point, “It’s good that the Republican party has candidates running for president like John Kasich, whose father was a mailman, and my father, who was a bartender.”

It was a plain political observation, one that hinted at glaring realities that undergirded Saturday’s proceedings: Republicans are viewed by many Americans as hostile to minorities and callous toward the poor. Ryan knows this better than most — having run a national campaign in 2012 and witnessing up close the damage done to his party’s brand — yet he labored to avoid casting Saturday’s proceedings as a narrowly focused electoral exercise.

But that didn’t stop others from pointing out the obvious. Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute and Ryan’s close friend, told the audience of studies that show a ten-point swing toward the GOP when Republicans promote and demonstrate two essential human attributes: empathy and compassion. And MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski, the liberal counterpart to former GOP congressman Joe Scarborough on Morning Joe, declared after the Rubio–Kasich panel ended: “This is a Republican party that can win the White house.”

‘I think conservatives should be confident in our beliefs and go push them everywhere we can and go to non-traditional communities,’ Ryan says.

Ryan, in the interview, says he’s not spotlighting poverty to help Republicans “pick up three points in Nevada” next fall. But he concedes the difficulty of distinguishing policy objectives from political ones. “If we’re going to save the American idea, we need to win elections,” he says. “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 will the conversation continue without Ryan? Will the Republican candidates, and ultimately the nominee, choose to focus on poverty — and spend precious time and resources visiting urban enclaves — at the expense of friendlier issues and more-probable voters? Ryan knows how unlikely it is. And yet he says he’s prepared, from his new, powerful perch as speaker of the House, to get in the ear of the eventual GOP nominee, lobbying him or her to avoid the mistakes he and Romney made in 2012.

“I think conservatives should be confident in our beliefs and go push them everywhere we can and go to non-traditional communities,” Ryan says. “It’s a no-brainer.”

This was a popular sentiment Saturday, with candidates pledging to expand the party’s appeal. Christie said Republicans must campaign in places that make them “uncomfortable,” adding, “We should stop going to Chamber of Commerce lunches.” But whether the GOP makes good on this promise in 2016 — and whether the party more broadly is viewed as a welcoming, empathetic entity — depends on its nominee. That person will singularly define Republicanism circa 2016 in the eyes of the electorate, overshadowing the efforts of Ryan and other Republicans. And the House speaker knows it.

Ryan says House Republicans will devote considerable time this year to crafting a welfare-reform package that would provide the party’s nominee with a specific set of anti-poverty policies to run on. Notably, he says such legislation won’t get a vote this year. “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,” Ryan says.

This is sure to invite Democratic criticism that Ryan’s focus on poverty is nothing more than a messaging exercise. But the speaker doesn’t seem worried about that. His priority, as the Republican primary season gets underway, is to promote what he feels is a positive, winning agenda — as either the on-ramp for a nominee who shares his vision, or a bulwark against one who doesn’t.

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