Can Paul Ryan's Pleasant Language Sell His Divisive Policies?

If your ideas hurt people, it doesn’t matter what you call them.

Gary Cameron / Reuters

Paul Ryan wants a nicer GOP. In remarks today that served as an extended subtweet to Donald Trump, the House Speaker struck a conciliatory tone, calling on Republicans to be the party of compassion. “People with different ideas are not traitors,” Ryan said. “They are not our enemies. They are our neighbors, our coworkers, our fellow citizens.”

Most notably, Ryan apologized for his past comments that divided the electorate into an elite class of makers (essentially: job-creators who pay federal income taxes) and a separate underclass of takers (those who don’t owe federal income taxes, because they don’t have much income to tax). “‘Takers’ wasn’t how to refer to a single mom stuck in a poverty trap, just trying to take care of her family,” he said. “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.”

This was a wow moment, as forthright apologies are all too rare in modern politics. In fact, it is one of many wow moments, as Ryan has been confessing this rhetorical sin and seeking forgiveness for the last two years.

But his penance has not been matched by a broader effort to change the substance beneath the words. Ryan has long been the intellectual torchbearer of a public policy that would immediately hurt the same people he has decided to stop calling “takers.” For years, he has put forth a budget that would provide the largest tax cuts in history for the wealthy while gutting income support and health care assistance for the middle-class and poor.

The Republican establishment, taking its cue from Ryan’s draconian budgets, has come to see massive tax cuts as an obligatory part of any comprehensive policy proposal. The most recent tax plans from Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and Mitt Romney would all cut annual taxes by at least $700,000 for the top 0.1 percent and decrease overall tax revenue by at least $5 trillion, requiring massive cuts in government spending on health care, income assistance, and public spending on things like education and infrastructure. This is the heart of the GOP establishment. And it bleeds for the rich.

The great irony here is that there is a prominent Republican defender of social spending, and it is the very person Ryan indirectly blasted in today’s speech. Donald Trump’s tax policy might be a catastrophic imitation of Paul Ryan’s, but on the spending side, he has repeatedly defended Medicare and Social Security from the cuts that Ryan has enthusiastically championed. It is conceivable that some of his support comes from anxious working- and middle-class families who don’t want their party’s economic policy dictated by the interests of the 0.1 percent if it means making the “makers” richer and taking more from the “takers.”

It doesn’t matter if a politician overhauls his vocabulary for America’s rich and poor without a similar renovation in principles. If the central battle in the GOP is between Ryan and Trump, then the party is divided between a rhetorically ameliorative leader whose policies would further divide rich from the poor and a rhetorically divisive leader whose policies, as hateful as some are, might do more overall to ameliorate the income gap. Forget the rhetoric of makers and makers. That is a real battle of ideas.