The unveiling on Tuesday morning of the House Republican plan to combat poverty—the first in a series of policy rollouts this month—went about as well as Speaker Paul Ryan probably expected.
There was the sober and serious House speaker, sans jacket and tie and with the sleeves on his crisp, white shirt rolled up, passionately making the case for conservative policies that would create opportunity for the poor and “help people move onward and upward” in society. Standing alongside him were seven other sober and serious Republican members who had crossed the Anacostia River in D.C. to praise the work of a drug rehab facility that helped men and women—mostly poor and African American—battle addiction and climb out of poverty. The center’s director, Bishop Shirley Holloway, hailed Ryan as “the listener of America.”
And then a bunch of reporters asked Ryan if Donald Trump was a racist.
So it goes for the nation’s highest-ranking Republican, who has made it his year’s mission to fashion a substantive policy agenda and offer it up as a election-year shield to his embattled flock. On Tuesday, that meant shouting proposals into a media wind tunnel.
In the main, Ryan’s challenge is Trump, whose penchant for creating distractions and dominating news coverage hasn’t diminished a bit in the year since he launched his presidential candidacy. Endorsing the presumptive nominee has proven risky for any Republican. But the speaker’s belated embrace last week ended up particularly ill-timed, coming just ahead of Trump’s race-baiting attacks on the judge deciding a lawsuit against his failed university. Ryan disavowed Trump’s remarks on Tuesday and said they represented “the textbook definition of a racist comment.” Ryan, though, stood by his endorsement, arguing Republicans had a better chance of seeing their agenda enacted with Trump as president than with Hillary Clinton.