Opinion writer
Rep. Paul Ryan (Kevin Poirier/Kenosha News via Associated Press)

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) deservedly is receiving widespread praise for hosting and leading a discussion with six GOP presidential candidates on poverty. It is symptomatic of the media’s fixation on treating politics like sports to call Ryan the “winner” in a serious discussion of a critical issue, but that is what one can expect these days from dumbed-down political coverage.

In addition to the thoughtful discussion and even-keeled tone Ryan displayed at the event, he did what politicians virtually never do: He said he was wrong. On the day after the debate on “Face the Nation,” Ryan had this exchange:

DICKERSON: Let me ask you about the — the phrase, takers. You once referred to those who — receive benefits as takers and you later apologized.

RYAN: Yes, I was wrong.

DICKERSON: And — and it’s interesting you say it, because in that case you seemed to be saying, be careful about the words you use.

RYAN: Yes.

DICKERSON: In the presidential campaign right now, that would be called political correctness.

RYAN: Well, look, I think I was wrong. I mean I was — when you — when you — when you do something that is wrong, you should call it to it. People who go on government assistance, people who are on government benefits, sure, some people are going to exploit the system. Some people are choosing to just, you know, live on the dole and not work because they prefer that. That’s a small percentage of it.

Most people don’t want to be poor. Most people don’t want to be dependent. And if we speak as if everybody is in this category, that’s wrong. And so that’s what I did and I was wrong to do that. And so that’s why I think we need to respect people for the ambitions and the goals and the dreams that they actually have and then help facilitate their — their access it to.

So, yes, I think — I think political correctness has gone way overboard and that’s — that’s the new thing in the campaign, which I think is great. But — but let’s just be accurate. Let’s be right. And let’s not be — let’s not have populism that’s unattached from our principles.

I was wrong. He didn’t say, “I misspoke.” (Who in real life says “misspoke”?) He didn’t say, “I’m, sorry if you were offended,” the typical non-apology, sometimes phrased as “I’m sorry if you misunderstood.” Although he said he regretted not campaigning in poor areas in 2012 (the Romney campaign infamously nixed his request to do so), he did not blame his running mate for the tone he adopted in 2012. And he did not concoct some mumbo-jumbo like, “I evolved on the issue.” Why is this important?

With good reason, a large percentage of voters consider pols to be liars and phonies. One reason is the language they use to obfuscate error and hide from responsibility. Rather than accept blame and take their lumps, pols would rather play word games that only fuel media harping. (How could he have misspoke? When did the evolution take place?)

Moreover, Ryan is trying to make the case that Republicans and Democrats alike have gotten the poverty argument wrong. Republicans have argued a “rising tide” is all that is needed while Democrats, as he says, defend a centralized bureaucracy in which inputs (how much money, how many programs, etc.) are the measure of compassion rather than the results (how many lifted out of poverty). “[W]hat the left ends up doing is they speak to people as if they’re stuck in their current station in life and government’s here to help them cope with it, ” he argues. “We should reject that. We want to help people get out of the fix they’re in and get on to a better life so that they can meet the potential and flourish. There will be differences in people’s lives, but that’s OK. That’s what — that’s what a free society has.”

If he is going to get both sides to set aside old nostrums, demonstrating some humility himself is a good way to begin.

In the interview, Ryan explained:

“A rising tide lifts all boats.” I think that’s true. But with poverty, we are finding deep and persistent chronic poverty. We have — we’re over 50 years in the war on poverty. We’ve had 80 new programs — 80 programs created since then at the federal level, spending trillions of dollars, yet we basically have a stalemate on our hands. We have a safety net that tries to catch people from falling into poverty, but we don’t have one that helps get people out of poverty. We’re actually treating the symptoms of poverty and perpetuating poverty, so we need to break that cycle and we need to go at the root causes of poverty and measure success not based on input and efforts and money and programs, but on outcomes and results. Are we getting people out of poverty?

This does not mean a vibrant economy is unnecessary. To the contrary, a recession hurts the poor most of all. Ryan’s point, however, is that economic growth is not sufficient. That means addressing the huge number of able-bodied adults not in the workforce. (“[O]ur labor force participation rates are pretty awful. We haven’t seen these since like the Carter years. What it means — what that means is, able-bodied adults aren’t working or aren’t looking for work. They’re marginalized. They’re on the sidelines.”

Fortunately, outside the Beltway there is growing agreement on the factors that contribute to poverty (e.g. poor schools, raising children in single-parent homes, the steep marginal tax rate imposed when you take a job and lose benefits) and some effective ways of addressing them that have shown concrete results (e.g. subsidized work through the Earned Income Tax Credit; vocational training; drug courts that require treatment, not incarceration).

To stop doing what we have been doing wrong and adopt something new requires, in effect, both sides to say, “I was wrong.” Democrats cannot ignore family structure, reflexively defend bureaucracy, equate compassion with the number of federal programs or remain captives of the teachers unions at the expense of poor children. Republicans cannot make reform about federal penny-pinching, insist that supply-side economics will cure poverty, treat poverty as a Democratic issue or ignore that it will take a lot of money to create an anti-poverty plan that is decentralized, favors work and adopts a holistic approach to people in need.

And the rest of us? Ryan implores “each and every one of us in — in America needs to get involved so that we can, in our communities, help a person, and if we can remove those barriers that are making it harder for people to rise and get an economic growth that is growing the economy everywhere, then we can reignite the enthusiasm for the American idea, the American dream, reconnect people to it.”

That will require a whole lot of the chattering class, politicians and voters on both sides to say, “I was wrong.”