With good reason, folks have been giving House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) the blues for delivering an excellent speech on the sour “state of American politics” while not calling out by name or disavowing any possible support of the noxious presidential candidacy of Donald Trump. But in his address, Ryan did something most politicians never do. He admitted making a mistake and reversing a policy position.
The mistake was his broad-brush condemnation of the poor as “takers,” which Ryan addressed in his prepared remarks.
But in a confident America, we aren’t afraid to disagree with each other. We don’t lock ourselves in an echo chamber, where we take comfort in the dogmas and opinions we already hold. We don’t shut down on people — and we don’t shut people down. If someone has a bad idea, we tell them why our idea is better. We don’t insult them into agreeing with us. We try to persuade them. We test their assumptions. And while we’re at it, we test our own assumptions too.
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. 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.
An insightful question about learning from failure from a Hill intern elicited a lengthy explanation of Ryan’s newfound embrace of criminal justice reform.
Intern: My question for you is one of leadership. . . . A true mark of leadership is learning from a failure….When has there been a moment in your career in politics or otherwise that you’ve been persuaded that one of your ideas or one of the things that you’ve done perhaps wasn’t the best idea and you’ve learned from that?
Speaker Ryan: I’ll give you two examples, I mentioned one in the speech which was I fell into the trap of thinking about “makers” and “takers” in the wrong way. About people who are struggling and for a moment need to be dependent on government who don’t want to be. So, I was callous and I oversimplified and I castigated people with a broad brush. That’s wrong. And there’s a lot of that happening in America today. I, myself, have made that mistake.
I think one of the policy examples of your question is, I’ve spent the last few years touring poor communities around America. Rural areas, inner cities, learning about just how people are trying to struggle with poverty. And one of the things that I learned was there are a lot of people who have been in prison, who committed crimes that were not violent crimes and who, once they have had that blight on their record and been imprisoned, their future is really bleak. And, in the 1990s, I came here in the late ‘90s, we, I think, overcompensated on some of our criminal-justice laws. I think we overcompensated on some of our laws where we had so many mandatory minimums and “three strikes you’re out” that we ended up putting people for long prison terms, which ends up ruining their life and hurting their communities where we could have had alternative means of incarceration, better means of actually dealing with the problem than basically destroying a person’s life.
And so that is why I have become more of a late convert to criminal-justice reform. Criminal-justice reform is something I never thought about when I was younger in Congress. It’s something that I thought just be tough on crime, be tough on crime. And I think we as Republicans and Democrats, kind of overcompensated on this in the 1990s. And now that we see the path of the pathologies that have come from it, I think we gotta go back and fix that. That is why as speaker, I talked to [Rep.] Bob Goodlatte [R-Va.] about this last night, we’re going to bring criminal justice-reform bills, which are now out of the judiciary committee, to the House floor and advance this because what we’re learning is and what I learned, I didn’t necessarily know this before, is redemption is a beautiful thing. It’s a great thing. Redemption is what makes this place work. This place being America, society. And we need to honor redemption and we need to make redemption something that is valued in our culture, in our society and in our laws. And that is why I think criminal-justice reform [is needed], something that I changed my position on, from learning about the power of redemption and the fact that our laws got this wrong. . . .
Two years ago, I rapped Ryan over the knuckles in an open letter on MSNBC for his ignorant (on every levels) “tailspin of culture in our inner cities” comment during a radio interview. The ensuing controversy forced Ryan to issue a clarification, which was equally unsatisfying. But in retrospect, what he said marked the beginning of the turnaround on display at the Capitol this week.
By then, Ryan, who had been the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee, had already started his self-education on poverty in America. According to The Post then, since February 2013, the Wisconsin Republican had been “quietly visiting inner-city neighborhoods . . . to talk to ex-convicts and recovering addicts about the means of their salvation.” Three years later, the re-education of Ryan is on full display.
Among the hallmarks of a true leader are a willingness to reexamine long-held beliefs and a willingness to change a position when said reexamination reveals new information that demands it. Ryan’s heartfelt articulation of his makers-and-takers mistake and of his embrace of criminal-justice reform are prime examples.
I don’t agree with Ryan on most things, but I have always admired his insistence on fighting ideas with ideas. For instance, his past budget proposals were frightening. Still, he was the only Republican willing to put something on the table to start a conversation. Listening to his responses to the Hill interns this week gave me hope that the ancient art of governing might return to Washington.
Now, if only Ryan could just bring himself to publicly say he would never support Trump, who is the antithesis of Ryan’s grace, comity and substance. That Ryan cannot — at least not yet — shows that the full mantle of leadership eludes him. And it assures that he will have a new story to tell about learning from failure.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj