Does Paul Ryan Suddenly Care About Poor People, Or is He Gearing Up For a Presidential Run?

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In an “otherwise ordinary “state of politics speech delivered to a group of congressional interns yesterday, Republican House Speak Paul Ryan, the Wisconsinite who ran as Vice President on Mitt Romney’s ticket in 2012, said something pretty shocking:

“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.”

When you consider the anti-poor, anti-welfare, anti-social-assistance-of-any-kind rhetoric that has dominated Republican politics since Reagan, this would be jaw-dropping language even from a back-bencher. From one of the party’s most visible figures, it’s flabbergasting.

Since this is politics, we’d be wise to ignore the hopeful parts of our brains that want to believe this is a legitimate about-face, and the sign of a warmer, fuzzier Republican party to come. But if that’s not the case, what’s the motive here? I mean, Ryan even went so far as to say that he should have been more civil in the past! Since when do politicians quasi-apologize or admit any wrongdoing?

One explanation is that he’s gearing up for a presidential run in 2020—preparing for a potential Hillary Clinton backlash year—and has realized that the Trump model of angry, mocking conservatism isn’t well-suited to winning national elections. When Trump loses, and if Hillary disappoints, Ryan could be poised to step in as the gallant savior of the party—a Republican with a heart.

Then again, maybe we shouldn’t be looking so far out in time. What if he’s aiming to be fill that savior role much sooner, in 2016? Imagine a brokered convention in which the only two choices are Trump and Cruz, two men who are almost universally loathed even in their own parties. John Kasich has tried to position himself as the third way, but maybe Paul Ryan is the better choice. After all, he’s untainted by losing to Trump in state after state, and he can enter the fray as the fresh-faced compromise candidate.

From where I stand, the smarter move is to wait for 2020. If the Republicans pull a fast one on Trump at the convention, Ryan will be nothing more than a symbol of anti-populist maneuvering, which isn’t a good place to be for the general election. Plus, Trump could mount a third-party run and undermine him completely. Ryan’s best bet is to hold off for for years, and keep positioning himself as the Republican candidate that will be palatable to the American public after four years of Clinton.

Watch Ryan’s full speech here:

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