When I heard the news about Speaker Paul Ryan’s speech Wednesday on the state of American politics, his rejection of “makers vs. takers” rhetoric and his call for debate about ideas instead of identity politics, I thought, Holy cow! Could Donald Trump drive Republicans back to decency and sanity?
Then I read the speech and found it wasn’t that big of a deal.
Speaker Ryan repeated his renunciation of his “makers vs. takers” rhetoric from his time as Mitt Romney’s ticketmate:
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.
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 [Speaker Paul Ryan, speech, 2016.03.23].
This kinder, gentler statement isn’t new; Ryan first laid it out in a 2014 Wall Street Journal op-ed and included it in his 2014 book The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea. He reminds us that we should not view food stamps, unemployment insurance, Medicaid, Medicare, and the rest of the social safety net as us-versus-them issues on which we can pretend to be morally superior to our unfortunate neighbors… especially not in an America in which nearly 60% of us stand a good chance of falling into poverty at some point in our lives. People receiving government benefits aren’t enemy leeches; they are neighbors. They are us. That’s not a new sentiment from Speaker Ryan, but it bears repeating, especially among Republicans who keep forgetting that we are all in this together.
(And hey, if Speaker Ryan really means it, if he really can get the Republican Party to stop villainizing recipients of government benefits as drug-using welfare queens, I’ll stop teasing Republican South Dakota for relying so heavily on federal money.)
What really would have been new and useful from Speaker Ryan is an explicit repudiation of Donald Trump, the GOP frontrunner who threatens our democracy with more than mere demonization of the poor. Speaker Ryan failed to go there, offering instead some pablum about niceness that doesn’t mention Mussolini but blames the Axis and the Allies for meanness:
Looking around at what’s taking place in politics today, it is easy to get disheartened. How many of you find yourself just shaking your head at what you see from both sides? [Ryan, 2016.03.23]
Ideas, passionately promoted and put to the test—that’s what politics can be. That’s what our country can be. It can be a confident America, where we have a basic faith in politics and leaders. It can be a place where we’ve earned that faith. 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 [Ryan, 2016.03.23].
Yet Speaker Ryan remains timid in the face of Donald Trump’s fascism. Asked if he agrees with Senator Elizabeth Warren and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto (and, for that matter, our own Stanford Adelstein) that Trump is an authoritarian in the mold of Mussolini and Hitler, Speaker Ryan said Tuesday, “I don’t see it that way.” He continues to namby-pamby along as a slave to the will of the primary voters who will acquiesce to a Trump nomination rather than leading those voters to a clearer understanding of the fascism that warrants their rejection of the Trump threat. He continues to leave a policy vacuum that Trump fills not with the ideas but with bombast and machismo.
The timidity of Ryan and other GOP leaders has allowed a bold amoral actor to scoop up their party’s voters, hijack their nomination, and put the Republic at risk. Only a bold response that sheds Ryan’s false-equivalency partisanship will defeat that risk.