Perhaps because his party is about to be officially led into the 2016 general election by a bigoted, xenophobic, sexist, bullying ignoramus, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has been doing some introspection. So on Wednesday, Ryan gave a truly remarkable speech, in which he not only questioned some of what that party has said and done (mostly said) in recent years, he even took responsibility for helping create political divisions and playing to voters' worst instincts. The real question for Ryan is whether he himself will embody this newly noble politics he's advocating. But before we get to that, let's give him credit for saying the right thing.
Much of Ryan's speech sounded like a veiled criticism not only of Donald Trump, but of his whole party. Here's an excerpt:
All of us as leaders can hold ourselves to the highest standards of integrity and decency. Instead of playing to your anxieties, we can appeal to your aspirations. Instead of playing the identity politics of "our base" and "their base," we unite people around ideas and principles. And instead of being timid, we go bold.
We don't resort to scaring you, we dare to inspire you...
In a confident America, we also have a basic faith in one another. We question each other's ideas — vigorously — but we don’t question each other's motives. If someone has a bad idea, we don't think they're a bad person. We just think they have a bad idea. People with different ideas are not traitors. They are not our enemies. They are our neighbors, our coworkers, our fellow citizens.
This could be a repudiation of every Republican campaign since 1968, including the current one. "We don't resort to scaring you"? Nobody does fear quite like the GOP, whether it's fear of criminals, fear of terrorism, or fear of foreigners. "People with different ideas are not traitors"? Tell that to the Republican politicians and conservative media figures who have been saying for the last seven years that Barack Obama is intentionally trying to destroy America because he hates it so much.
So good for him for making that clear. But then Ryan went even further:
I'm certainly not going to stand here and tell you I have always met this standard. 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. 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. 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.
In case you weren't aware, Ryan was once an Ayn Rand acolyte who made all his interns read Atlas Shrugged, and who used to talk not only about makers and takers but about how safety net programs are "a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives." You see, when the government pays a wealthy person's mortgage interest, that's just promoting home ownership, which is good for America. But when it gives out food stamps to poor people so they can feed their families, it's allowing them to become leeches whose very spirit has been diminished.
I'm glad that Ryan no longer uses that language and has the courage to admit that using it was wrong. But the natural question is, how many of his policy ideas have changed? And the answer is that most of them haven't. Ryan does want to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is great. But he also still wants to turn programs like Medicaid and food stamps into block grants that would allow states to slash benefits. And he still wants to turn Medicare into a poorly-funded voucher program that could leave vulnerable seniors unable to afford health coverage.
That's not to mention that despite his more expansive thoughts about Americans who are struggling, Ryan remains the firmest of friends to the wealthy. And one can't help but notice that this speech comes at a time when Republicans are confronting a particular problem in the form of Donald Trump. White working-class Republicans, you see, no longer seem so interested in what politicians like Ryan have been selling them, and so they're gravitating to a demagogue who offers them a more purely distilled brand of fear and anger. Those voters have been fed a steady diet of cultural and racial resentment, pushed to the polls with the promise that once Republicans are elected, they'll really stick it to those people. Yet for some reason it always turns out that the first item on the GOP's priority list is tax cuts for the wealthy, followed closely by lightening the regulatory load on corporations and undermining collective bargaining.
After seven years in which the Republican leadership stoked its base's rage and distrust — at politics, at Washington, and at Barack Obama — we should compliment Paul Ryan for seeking a kinder, gentler debate. But his party is still going to be led by Donald Trump, who is neither kind nor gentle. And though Ryan has been critical of some of Trump's rhetoric, he still says that if Trump is the Republican nominee, he'll stand behind him.
Maybe it's expecting too much for Ryan to do otherwise. But the doing is always the hard part; the saying is relatively easy. Perhaps Paul Ryan really is a changed man, but to know for sure, we're going to have to watch his actions.