It’s not easy to admit to being wrong, especially when that admission encompasses such a significant part of one’s life. That’s why when House Speaker Paul Ryan told a group of interns this week that he was wrong in the past about the real struggles of poor people, I found myself wanting so badly to believe him. I do give him credit for making the statement, and I will try to give him as much benefit of the doubt as I can possibly muster for uttering these words:
“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.”
However, there’s one thing missing, and it will determine if his apology is genuine, or if he’s just trying to position himself as a strong compromise candidate for president when the Republican Convention is contested this summer. His actions for the rest of his career will determine whether his words are rooted in authenticity or agenda.
Speaker Ryan has a tumultuous history with those living in poverty. He often tries to paint himself among their brethren, only he leaves out the part about his family’s wealth and connections that helped get him jobs and eventually get into office. This is why it was so casual for him to slip up on a radio show and say inner city poor people are lazy, which led him to immediately backtrack because he didn’t realize he was telling everyone the part of the Republican playbook that we’re not supposed to know about.
In addition, I hold him complicit as the head of the committee that allowed Representative Reid Ribble to scold a nun. Sister Simone’s response, by the way, was tragically brilliant. If you’ve ever wondered what it looks like when a nun crushes a congressman, this is well worth a watch.
His awkwardness around those at the bottom of the wealth scale was never more evident than in 2012, when he was simultaneously running for congress and vice president. Representative Ryan thought he could show off his understanding of the impoverished by working in a soup kitchen while on the Romney campaign trail. We later learned this his dishwashing day was actually about 15 minutes long and was never about beefing up his charity chops; it was about getting pictures taken of him doing poor people stuff for poor people…even though all the poor people had already eaten and left.
I’m sure to Paul Ryan fans, this all sounds like a backhanded compliment, and maybe it is. I really won’t know until the speaker shows his legislative cards. Luckily, it shouldn’t take long for that to happen, because Speaker Ryan wants a budget for 2017, and to do that will take a lot of compromise. Where he decides to make those compromises will ultimately tell us if his recent epiphany is sincere or just more Republican bloviating.
Will he work with Democrats to pass a budget that is truly bipartisan and reflective of the government that was chosen by the people? Or will he cower before the Tea Party wing as they threaten him with a primary challenger or the loss of his speakership? Will he work towards a budget that sees those in poverty as people that want to work hard but could use a boost, or will he knuckle-under and start blaming it on lazy urban culture again?
I want to believe him. But his career has me concerned about his intentions, and earning that trust from me and the rest of America will require substance that goes beyond pretty words. This was hopefully a good start, but now begins the accountability.
Featured image screengrab via YouTube