Paul Ryan outlines 'A Better Way' – now he needs listeners

House Speaker Paul Ryan unveiled an anti-poverty plan Tuesday as part of a broader vision for the GOP. But all reporters wanted to hear about was his reaction to Trump's 'racist' comments.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
House Speaker Paul Ryan hugs Shirley Holloway, director of the House of Help City of Hope in Anacostia, one of Washington's poorest neighborhoods, as Representative Ryan proposed an overhaul for the nation's poverty programs on Tuesday June 7.

On Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan unveiled Part I of a new Republican agenda to show voters what the party is for – not just what it’s against.

In an African-American neighborhood in Washington, he introduced a plan developed by House Republicans to fight poverty, which has been a high priority for Speaker Ryan.

But all that the attending media wanted to know about was his reaction to Donald Trump's latest controversial comments. The presumptive GOP nominee had said that a judge who is handling the Trump University case is biased due to his Mexican heritage. Ryan characterized the comments as “racist,” and said they were “indefensible.”

The battery of questions about Mr. Trump – as opposed to the substance of the speaker’s plan to help the poor – illustrates the challenge that Ryan will have in breaking through the noise that surrounds this presidential campaign.

“American politics is dominated by presidential discussion,” says Kyle Kondik, political analyst and managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball. “Unless Ryan can get Trump to basically echo Ryan’s talking points, I just think it’s going to be hard for Ryan’s message to break through.”

'Something to run on'

One thing that can be said about Trump’s vision for America – he’s got ideas, but there’s not much flesh on the bones, and many of them don’t connect with traditional Republican positions.

Ryan’s anti-poverty plan is a steak in comparison.

The document weighed in at 35 pages (a snapshot is here). The speaker characterizes it as a bottom-up approach to a problem that hasn’t budged in 50 years. The plan would increase work requirements for welfare recipients, including for food stamps; better reward work so that poor people aren’t punished for earning more; consolidate federal programs, and give states more say in how aid is distributed.

Democrats lambasted the proposals for gutting the safety net, but Matt Mackowiak, a GOP consultant, says starting with poverty is “symbolically important,” because Republicans “don’t have a great record” in helping the poor. Tuesday's proposal, he says, could provide Republicans “a real way to reach out to minority communities with credibility.”

Over the next three weeks Ryan and his House colleagues will unveil the rest of their six-point agenda, titled “A Better Way.” Other issues will include national security, the economy, repealing and replacing “Obamacare,” tax reform, and the Constitution. The agenda is meant to show voters what Republicans in Congress would do if they also had the presidency.

The agenda “fills in policy gaps” that are lacking from Trump, says Mr. Mackowiak. “It gives members something to run on that is entirely separate from Trump, and it also gives Trump a chance to embrace the mainstream Republican party.”

If this were a normal election year, there would be tight messaging coordination up and down the ticket. That’s exactly what Ryan had in mind when he announced last year that House Republicans would develop a positive vision for the country. He anticipated that their work would help shape the nominee’s campaign, and jump-start the legislative process for a new GOP president.

But that was before the speaker from Wisconsin knew that the nominee would be a brash real estate mogul whose statements would require constant repudiation by lawmakers. And before he knew the nominee would reject core Republican principles, such as free trade or entitlement reform. Despite their differences, the pragmatic Ryan last week endorsed Trump, because only a Republican president can help make the House agenda “a reality.”

So now the speaker is in a position of trying to bring the nominee on board with his ideas.

“Ordinarily, the top of the ticket defines the party, but Ryan is saying, ‘not this year.’ He’s saying, ‘Here is what you’ll get from us,’ ” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. She calls the Ryan agenda “a productive move and a clarifying move in a confusing year.”

Ryan agenda 'invites Trump to adopt [it]'

Professor Jamieson also says that in a campaign that is shaping up to be highly negative, Americans are “hungering” for a positive message such as that delivered by Ryan.

But will they respond to a set of policy papers from House task forces – if they even hear about them?

Voters don’t want 10-point plans on every major issue, cautions Mackowiak, but they do want to know that a candidate feels their anxiety and that life will get better with that candidate. Simplicity and repetition of a few core ideas – à la Bernie Sanders and even Trump – are critical, he says, adding that “it’s not even clear” what Hillary Clinton’s message is. Like Ryan, she’s also considered a policy wonk.

At his press conference, Ryan said that he and Trump have had “exhaustive” discussions about the House GOP agenda, including welfare-to-work. But talking is not the same as agreeing.

Still, says Jamieson, as the Ryan agenda unfurls, “it invites Trump to adopt that agenda.” The nominee will be peppered with questions from reporters, asking if he supports the agenda, or if he would sign related legislation if he were president, she says.

If Trump does not embrace the agenda, Ryan can still use it to help Republicans running for Congress, analysts and lawmakers say.

Jamieson can envision Ryan putting up ads about what Republicans stand for – without mentioning Trump – and using those ads to help Republicans in tight congressional races who may be endangered by having Trump at the top of the ballot.

She points to Barack Obama, who, in 2008, bought a half hour on network television to basically make the closing argument for his presidential candidacy and what he stood for.

“It was very powerful move,” she said.

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