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The Repentant Rhetoric Of Paul Ryan

Has he really changed the way he thinks about poverty?

Paul Ryan, current speaker of the House and Mitt Romney’s GOP running mate in 2012, gave a speech in March about the state of American politics. The first half of the speech was a sentimental paean to How Things Used to Be in the America of Our Forefathers and a lament about the lack of civility, respect, and decorum in modern politics. Given that the Republican race has featured a PAC running ads calling a presidential candidate’s wife a slut and presidential candidates talking about the size of their fiddly bits on national television, this isn’t, y’know, an unreasonable thing to complain about.

What was a little more attention-grabbing, though, was the second half of the speech, in which Ryan used his own past views on poverty as an example of how getting caught in a political echo chamber can lead to wrongheaded thinking and offensive framing:

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.

So I stopped thinking about it that way — and talking about it that way. But I didn’t come out and say all this to be politically correct. I was just wrong. And, of course, there are still going to be times when I say things I wish I hadn’t. There are still going to be times when I follow the wrong impulse.

Ryan used to use rhetoric along those lines quite often. Initially a piece of technical shorthand used to describe how the government redistributed money — a “maker” was someone who paid the government more money in taxes than they got back in benefits, and a “taker” was someone who got more government benefits than they paid in taxes — in Ryan’s hands it was soon transformed into a moral indictment. A few days before he joined Romney’s presidential ticket, for instance, he said this: "We risk hitting a tipping point in our society where we have more takers than makers in society, where we will have turned our safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people into lives of dependency and complacency, which drains them of their will and incentive to make the most of their lives."

But the makers/takers dichotomy really hit the mainstream when Romney gave his version of it in a private fundraiser, in which he said that 47 percent of people would vote for Obama because they pay no net income taxes, and thus were “dependent upon government,” “believe they are victims,” and that his (Romney's) job was “not to worry about those people,” because he could “never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” Yeah. Yikes.

Much of the commentary at the time focused on whether it was accurate to say that because 47 percent of people don’t pay income taxes, that means that 47 percent of people pay no taxes at all (it isn’t). Regardless, focusing too much on wonky details misses the forest for the trees. The broader thrust of this rhetoric matches a standard conservative line on poverty, especially urban poverty — that is, that poverty is the result of poor people’s poor choices.

At some level, viewing poverty this way is just a natural consequence of maintaining a high level of trust in the free market’s fairness. After all, if you believe the wealthy have rightfully earned their wealth through hard work and ingenuity, then it follows that you believe the poor, too, must have earned their poverty through laziness and passivity. If a more systemic problem is at play, it’s that poor people have acquired a taste for sloth because they come from a broken culture that has grown dependent on welfare and doesn’t value hard work.

Whether or not you think there’s anything to this idea, it’s obvious that framing it in a way that dismisses 47 percent of the country as inveterate parasites, as Romney did, is a political loser. So it’s not all that surprising that, beginning almost immediately after the 2012 campaign, Ryan has made big show of running from the makers/takers rhetoric, claiming to have learned his lesson. He did this in his book-length post-election branding and positioning exercise The Way Forward, in McKay Coppins’s BuzzFeed profile of him, and in the expanded version of that profile that’s in The Wilderness, Coppins’s book about the the GOP in 2016. And now, again, in this speech.

Maybe it’s my hard-bitten millennial cynicism, but I’m always wary of easy, repeated apologies from politicians. Apologizing makes you sound humble and reasonable. This makes for a great political play as long as you aren’t conceding that you’ve done anything too severe, and as long as you don’t have to pair it with any sort of concrete plan to change your actions in the future. In his speech, Ryan goes out of his way to make sure that we know he’s not apologizing just for his insensitive language (“I didn’t come out and say all this to be politically correct”) but also for his incorrect way of thinking about the problem, which he came to realize was wrong after learning more about the “root causes.”

This is a promising apology, until we get to the part where we ask what Ryan plans to do differently as a result of his epiphany about takers and makers (beyond not being so insensitive and rude about it). The answer appears to be nothing. The Way Forward, for instance, has a lot of very nuanced, sympathetic, and inspiring anecdotes about how various people have fallen into poverty, and about the passionate local nonprofits who are trying to help them out of it. As Ryan is quoted as saying in The Wilderness, he would like to empower these nonprofits to reach more people, rather than relying on one-size-fits-all federal programs. But the way that translates into policy seems to be the same way it generally does for lots of Republicans — cutting funding to federal programs that serve the poor and replacing them with nothing. Whatever you may say about the efficacy of this solution, one thing that you can’t call it is new. Which makes me wonder: What’s the point of this apology in the first place? My mom always used to tell me that an apology was worthless unless you planned on changing. Maybe Ryan should heed that same message.