Not two weeks into the new congressional session, Paul Ryan is enjoying a moment—and not just because he scraped off that scraggly excuse for a “hunting beard” he’d been sporting. (I cannot overstate how relieved other members of Congress were to see it go.) Committed to refocusing House Republicans on Big Ideas—going, in his own words, “propositional” rather than “oppositional”—the new speaker has come blazing out of the gate with a much-ballyhooed push to get his party talking about poverty. The policies he fancies include expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit and consolidating federal funding for existing programs into “opportunity grants” managed by the states. But before he can worry about the fine print, Ryan must first gin up political enthusiasm for the broader proposition.
Last Saturday, in the early primary state of South Carolina, the speaker and Senator Tim Scott hosted a presidential-candidate forum on the issue, sponsored in large part by the Jack Kemp Foundation. Organized by Ryan before his abrupt promotion, the event clearly benefitted from his new status. Six GOP contenders showed up to share their personal stories about poverty along with their policy thoughts on combatting it. Political journalists flooded the scene, including MSNBC’s Morning Joe and Mika, who did sit-downs with the major players. Afterward, the rave reviews rolled in—for the event’s ambition, tone, format, and, most notably, its organizer: The speaker was lauded as a “star” for promoting a kinder, gentler GOP, for trafficking in ideas, for creating a refuge from the presidential bombast, for being, in essence, the anti-Trump. (The Donald, it should be noted, declined to attend.) No one could quite believe that a top Republican was publicly goading his brethren to talk about poor folk.