Can Paul Ryan Save the GOP From Itself?

The House speaker stands for sane Republican conservatism in a party in the throes of Trumpmania.

01.10.16 8:06 PM ET

In ways large and small, newly minted House Speaker Paul Ryan seems to be doing his best to prevent his fellow Republicans from throwing themselves and their party into an abyss they could never climb out of. 

In a cycle when the Republican presidential field has become mired in the nativist, the trivial, and the occasionally cruel, Ryan, along with Republican South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, sat six presidential candidates down in Columbia, S.C., Saturday to talk about the struggles of poor Americans and ways to lift them people out of poverty.

Twelve hours before the Ryan event began in Columbia, Donald Trump had rallied 6,000 further north in Rock Hill, S.C. When a 56-year-old Muslim woman stood silently behind Trump in protest, he stopped his event as security threw her out, to the roar of the crowd. “You have a bomb! You have a bomb!” one yelled, according to CNN. Before the rally, a Trump staffer had instructed the crowd that protesters would not be tolerated.

Compare that to the forum in Columbia, where Ryan and Scott quizzed Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Ben Carson, John Kasich, and Mike Huckabee about their ideas to tackle persistent poverty. When protesters stood again and again to yell “undocumented and unafraid!” at Rubio, Ryan kept talking anyway. Eventually those protesters were ejected, too, but the crowd remained entirely and deliberately civil.

Unlike the fact-free frenzy that the Trump phenomenon has become, complete with policy proposals like “We’ll have more of everything,” the Ryan-Scott forum was an attempt to focus on a critical issue without easy answers. It will need Democrats and Republicans alike to solve the problem, the kind the Ryan has said he’ll make the focus of his agenda as Speaker.

The event was named after the late Jack Kemp, Ryan’s mentor, who traveled extensively throughout inner cities during his time in the House of Representatives to meet with people in poverty, particular African Americans, and push Republicans to produce policies that could give them a way out.  

Scott talked about growing up poor in South Carolina. Ryan laid out the role he sees for conservatives in breaking the cycles of poverty, incarceration, addiction, and untreated mental illness. “In this country, the condition of your birth does not determine your outcome in life,” Ryan said. “But if it is not true for everybody, then it’s really not true at all.”

It’s a perspective some Democrats approach with skepticism from Ryan, pointing to the federal budget blueprint Ryan offered in 2012 as evidence that Ryan is ready to gut Medicare, Social Security, and crucial safety net programs for the poorest Americans.

But Bob Woodson, a longtime poverty and civil rights activist, said Ryan’s approach to the issue is both genuine and evolving.  

In October of 2012, Ryan called Woodson to ask a favor—could he assemble a group of grassroots activists in Ohio to talk to Ryan about the war on poverty? “It was an epiphany for him,” Woodson said. 

The two continued their travels after the 2012 elections. “We went once a month, every month for two years,” Woodson said. “High crime, low-income neighborhoods in the worst ZIP Codes in the country...seeing drug addicts being redeemed, touching the arms of people on heroin, kneeling down and praying with people in New Orleans. He learned firsthand what the journey was for them.”

Woodson said Ryan followed up with cards and notes to the people he met and has remained in touch with them. As time passed, Woodson said he began to see a change in Ryan. “He stopped talking about cutting budgets and started talking about revising people’s behavior so that, as a consequence, it will reduce the cost of government.”

But Ryan’s epiphany is not his party’s. While candidates like Ben Carson and Marco Rubio talk about their own families’ struggles, frontrunner Donald Trump has largely ignored the issue, aside from offering his opinion that wages are too high. Whether Ryan can bring his party along on his crusade with him is an open question, particularly in a year when Trump’s rabid populism and personal insults, not civil conversations about poverty, is the fuel for the fire with the GOP base.  

Whether Republicans as a party can, or even want to, address the needs of poor Americans is a pivotal question for many in the GOP, and one many believe will decide the long-term viability of the party.   

“Our leading candidate has a 80 percent disapproval rating with Hispanics, with a growth potential,” Sen. Lindsey Graham told The Daily Beast. “But I think Paul Ryan embracing Jack Kemp is a good thing. The party of Jack Kemp needs to reemerge, you have to have a heart and a brain.”

John Lettieri, the co-founder of the Economic Innovation Group, a nonpartisan think tank that co-sponsored the event, said the forum had revealed two possible paths for the GOP.

“There are leaders within the party who are working aggressively to reframe the way voters consider Republicans when they think about the question that really cost Mitt Romney, ‘Who cares about people like you?’” Littieri said. “You have those people like Ryan, Bush, Rubio, Kasich—they are not going to give up their party without a fight.”

Although Ryan won wide praise at the forum, he’s already gotten calls for a primary challenger from grassroots conservatives who says he’s just another version of former House Speaker John Boehner, a deal-maker who many derided as insufficiently conservative.

But Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who worked with Ryan in the House, predicted the new Speaker would be able to work his way through the politics of the notoriously raucous caucus and help their party in the process.  

“There’s one good thing that happened with Paul. They begged him to become Speaker, so he can set his own terms, and that’s what he’s done,” Kasich said. “He’s a policy guy and it’s hard for Speakers to be totally policy-oriented without understanding the politics of the caucus. That will be his challenge and his frustration, but he’ll manage it well.”