Paul Ryan: I Was Wrong to Castigate “Takers”

Emphasizes Jack Kemp’s Optimism, Gospel of Raising All Boats

House Speaker Paul Ryan has called for not just a “higher standard of decorum” in American politics, but a fundamental re-framing of the GOP’s message and approach:

“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.

Here’s the speech . Befitting the humility Ryan calls for, he gave the speech to a room full of Hill interns — the future of the Republican party (if it has one):

Ryan elaborates on the same point in Q&A (22:30):

I was callous and I over-simplified and I painted people with a broad brush

He gets into specifics (23:10) about the over-criminalization of the 1990s economically disenfranchising huge numbers of Americans (black men in particular):

That’s why I’ve become … a late convert to criminal justice reform.

Ryan promised to bring bipartisan criminal justice reforms to the House floor for a full vote — a cause that has so united Left and Right that the Obama White House has been meeting with Koch brothers!


Ryan makes it clear that he’s simply returning to the message Jack Kemp preached relentlessly for three decades:

“I must admit, I didn’t always find this idea so exciting… As I said, I came to Washington unsure of what I was going to do with my life. And then I ended up working for a guy named Jack Kemp. Jack once played quarterback for the Buffalo Bills. He went on to represent the people of Western New York in the House in the 1970s and 80s. He served in the Cabinet under President George H.W. Bush. And, like me, he was once our party’s nominee for vice president.

“But I first met Jack exactly where you’d expect…at Tortilla Coast. It’s true…I was waiting on his table. I didn’t bother him that day, but I told a friend I’d love to have the chance to work for him. And, as luck would have it, such an opening soon arose. The thing about Jack was, he was an optimist all the way. He refused to accept that any part of America–or the American Idea–could be written off. Here was a conservative willing — no, eager — to go to America’s bleakest communities and talk about how free enterprise could lift people out of poverty. These were areas that hadn’t seen a Republican leader come through in years, if ever.

“I had the chance to accompany Jack on some of these visits. I saw how people took to him. I saw how he listened, and took new lessons from each experience. He found common cause with poverty fighters on the ground. Instead of a sense of drift, I began to feel a sense of purpose. Jack inspired me to devote my professional life to public policy. It became a vocation.


If you want to see what a Kemp-Ryan GOP would look like, focused on reaching out to, and empowering that “47 percent,” instead of demonizing them read Fred Barnes and Mort Kondracke’s new biography:

A few of my favorite clips from the book. First, on Ryan’s theme of civility:

The purpose of politics is not to defeat your opponent as much as it is to provide superior leadership and better ideas than the opposition.

And on Ryan’s theme of preaching uplift, not division:

One memorable [1978] speech amounted to a stinging critique of his own party and called for a “Republican Renaissance.”
Sooner or later, you have to accept the fact that Democrats have been running the show because they’ve been beating Republicans . . . for the same reason that the Yankees beat the Dodgers. . . . They’re better at what they do. . . . What you hear from some Republicans is that Democrats [win] because the poor, ignorant voters just don’t know what’s good for them. . . .
Kemp insisted that Republicans needed to stop complaining about the cost of welfare, stop whining about balancing the budget, and think hard about how to stimulate growth. Kemp went on to propound his “two wagons” theory of politics. The Republicans loaded the wagon (with goods and services), while the Democrats unloaded it (to the public) — both necessary jobs if the load was to benefit society. Calling Republicans the party of growth and the Democrats the party of distribution, he warned that Republicans had stopped doing their necessary job and were trying to do the Democrats’ work. “Surely it’s obvious that you can’t unload the wagon faster than you load it. Sooner or later, it’s empty and you are living hand to mouth,” a good description of the nation’s sorry condition of mid-1970s stagflation.
Kemp finished the speech by touting Republican policies — notably Kemp-Roth — that would produce more wealth and prosperity. “The party must not become more Democratic, but more democratic,” he said, urging that Republicans be concerned with the welfare of all, not “elitist” or “patronizing.” He insisted that the party of “economic growth (real, not inflated) can’t lose and the Democrats know it. The idea is too powerful.”

Kemp’s messaging, like Ryan’s, evolved throughout the course of his political career:

Until he was HUD secretary [under Bush I], he believed in John Kennedy’s dictum, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” Then he became convinced that “some boats are stuck on the bottom” and can’t rise without government help.

But his underlying vision remained clear:

Kemp said that the goal of Lincoln’s Republican Party was not “the construction of a safety net under which people should not be allowed to fall, but . . . of a ladder upon which people can climb.” He said, “Yes, we need a safety net, but it should be a trampoline, not a trap. And, right now, it’s a trap.” The measure of compassion of the party of Lincoln, he said, “should not be how many people need help, but how many people do not need to be on government assistance because they’re now on that ladder of upward mobility that Lincoln called the desire to improve one’s lot in life.”

Kemp’s springboard into politics was his successful career as quarterback for the Buffalo Bills. He was an early champion for integration in sports, and spent the rest of his political career building friendships and working relationships with African Americans. As his Congressional colleagues joked:

“Jack Kemp has showered with more black men than most Republicans meet in a lifetime.”

This endearing anecdote from the book says it

Kemp’s staff couldn’t control him, and neither could House colleagues, including his best friends. When Kemp was running for president in 1988, Trent Lott set up a fund-raiser for him in Jackson, Mississippi. Heading into the dinner, Lott told Kemp, “Jack, I love you. But for the next hour, shut up about opening the party for African Americans,” not a favorite topic in the southern white GOP. Kemp listened, nodded “uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh.” “Then he went in and spoke for the next 35 minutes about opening the party to African-Americans,” press secretary John Buckley said. “I was proud of Jack all the time I worked for him, but I think that was the proudest moment of all.”

And, finally on electoral politics:

[AEI’s Norm] Ornstein thinks that “if Kemp had prevailed, we would be looking at a majority Republican party today” because a Kempian GOP could win 40 to 50 percent of the Hispanic vote and 15 to 20 percent of the African American vote (versus 27 percent and 6 percent, respectively, for Mitt Romney in 2012).


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