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WASHINGTON — Paul Ryan has visited low-income neighborhoods in Texas, Ohio and elsewhere over the past two years to meet with groups and individuals working to help lift people out of poverty.
It’s been a little-publicized affair. Ryan brought almost no press with him on any of the trips. One of the few reporters to accompany him, Buzzfeed’s McKay Coppins, last April detailed the Wisconsin Republican’s visit to an early-morning men’s Bible study in Indianapolis.
Ryan’s critics have complained that these expeditions were part of a politically calculated vanity project designed to soften the GOP’s image and set the congressman — who was the GOP’s vice presidential nominee in 2012 — up for a bid for higher office.
But on March 17, Ryan will issue a rejoinder to that accusation in the form of a documentary film on the people he met during his travels to impoverished communities. In fact, he told Yahoo News, part of the reason he chose not to run for president in 2016 was that he wanted to protect this video project from second-guessing about his motives for doing it.
“I made my decision [not to run for president] for a multitude of reasons. You know — young family, in a good place to make a big difference — but also I didn’t want to jeopardize this project and these causes by betting it on a presidential campaign. You know, who knows who’s going to win,” said Ryan in an interview.
“I wanted to make sure this got away from presidential politics. I wanted to make sure that this got some distance from being seen as some personal ambitious project for a politician,” said Ryan, who is now chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means, which plays a central role in making the tax policies through which so much of the government’s anti-poverty efforts flow.
“Comeback: A New Mini-Series About American Redemption” will be released to the public by Opportunity Lives, the conservative group that funded the making of the films. Backed by a group of donors on the right that includes Paul Singer, CEO of New York hedge fund Elliott Management Corp., the series cost $180,000 to make. It was shot and produced by Clare Burns, a young conservative filmmaker who produced the widely praised biographical short on Mitt Romney that introduced him on the final night of the 2012 Republican convention in Tampa.
When federal disclosure forms revealed that Ryan’s leadership political action committee, Prosperity PAC, had paid more than $81,000 to Burns, it sparked talk that Ryan was preparing to run for president. USA Today called it “a curious expense.”
The seven-episode series Burns has produced consists of one introductory episode and then tells six stories, for 10 to 15 minutes each, of people Ryan met in Cleveland, Dallas, Indianapolis, Washington, D.C., San Antonio and Somerset, N.J.
The first episode is the only one to feature Ryan prominently. In it he talks with Bob Woodson, a conservative African-American anti-poverty activist who served as Ryan’s guide to the predominantly minority communities he visited, and explains how he decided to take a closer look at poverty after the 2012 election.
Ryan has traced it back to the one event he did on the topic as Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s running mate, in Cleveland. During that event, a group of ministers and community activists gathered around Ryan and laid hands on him to pray for him. Ryan has said that that moment lit a spark and set him on his journey. A little over two years later, Ryan now talks about the stories of recovering drug addicts and redeemed gang members with fervor.
“I get so much joy and inspiration out of these stories that I basically came to the idea that you need to figure out how to share this because these are stories that need to be told and retold so that more can be found,” he said. “The whole purpose of [the video series] is to show redemption exists, people are fighting poverty very successfully, it’s outright inspiring, and they’re in every community.”
Ryan, who spoke to Yahoo News exclusively about the film, was at pains to insist it is not political. “It’s really not policy and partisan as much as it’s just trying to be inspirational,” he said.
But there is a clear conservative message embedded in the series, which is expressed explicitly in the trailer preview for the second episode. “Government programs can’t change lives,” says Paul Grodell, a minister who mentored Greg Bradford, a recovering drug addict.
In each episode in the “Comeback” series, faith or individuals make the crucial difference in the lives of people who need help, not government. The focus on individual efforts also leaves the filmmakers open to the criticism that they are suggesting that those in poverty are in dire straits only through some character flaw or some fault of their own. This will grate on those who focus on the systemic obstacles that face those who are born into poverty or who become destitute through tragedy or accident. This concern is part of what drives progressives like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
But regardless of how those who are struggling ended up there, Ryan’s conclusion would likely be the same. In essence, he believes that the federal government needs to fund projects but then let people and groups at the local level have wide latitude about how to help people who need it. Ryan said that the government’s approach to fighting poverty since President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 launched the “War on Poverty” has been “a top-down, command and control, central planning approach” that “has failed.”
“We need to disaggregate it, we need to decentralize it, and we need to acknowledge that government has a very important role to play but it is circumspect and limited and it needs to be in concert with, not in contention with, these good works that are happening out there in America,” Ryan said. “The best thing the government does is bring resources to the table, but sometimes the worst thing it does is it displaces and it takes over and it displaces good works.”
“What I’m trying to do is get the best of both worlds, to get the resources that the government brings but also to leverage the talents and the personal touch that civil society in local community groups and in people bring to the table,” he said.
When asked for an example of how the government can act to alleviate poverty, Ryan mentioned sentencing guidelines reform, an issue where he is working on legislation with a few other Republican members of Congress. “That’s something I want to see us act on this year,” he said.
Even if Ryan’s many detractors will be suspicious that the video series is just slick packaging for the same Ryan ideas they’ve always hated, it’s hard to ignore that the 45-year-old congressman speaks on the topic with more empathy than he used to, and in a way many conservatives do not. Ryan, who in 2012 was caricatured as an Ayn Rand-reading libertarian who cared nothing for the poor and the middle class, whose visit to a soup kitchen became a controversy, said his experiences with both the poor and the public glare have changed him.
“What I as a conservative have learned is you need to go learn. You need to go visit. You need to see, and then you need to apply your beliefs and your lessons in your communities and in your vocation,” he said. “It just basically opens your eyes and opens your heart and opens your mind.”
“The big takeaway is listen and learn, because people speak things differently. They have different experiences, and they do hurt in different ways. And I think it’s really important to try and glean another person’s perspective, so that you’re better informed and you can learn from it.”
When asked about the racially charged debate over the use of lethal force by police in Ferguson, Mo., as well in other publicized incidents in Staten Island and Cleveland, Ryan dodged a question on specifics. “I don’t know the latest,” he said about Ferguson. “I’ve been so busy trying to get a trade agreement.”
But he indicated that he looks at debates like the one around Ferguson and race differently than he used to.
“I have relationships with people that have different perspectives that have given me a different view on this,” he said. And Ryan spoke about how Woodson and an African-American minister in New Jersey, DeForest “Buster” Soaries, “are trying to develop these solutions where they go into communities like Ferguson and begin to create dialogues between police and the communities so they can remove these barriers and get better dialogues going between police and the communities, so that they can air their grievances and everybody can better understand each other.”
“And that is something that I have a whole new appreciation for, and I guess I’d say sensitivity to,” Ryan said. “I have a whole new way of listening to it from talking to them.”
These sentiments are so far from the norm of how most conservatives talk that Ryan felt the need to insert a clarification into his remarks, responding to some unseen critique from the right that was apparently playing out in his head as he spoke.
“That’s not some declaration that political principles are somehow changing or something like that. It’s just a declaration of figuring out how to make a difference,” he said.
Ryan’s discussion of the video series and of poverty in general at times became almost evangelistic, and he spoke in broad terms of inspiring people outside of politics to become invigorated and hopeful and involved in their community. It was the tone of a political leader who views himself and his reach in national terms, who may have put off running for president now in order to focus on rewriting the tax code, but who still harbors hopes of down the road occupying the White House.
“We need to struggle to break down these barriers. People are segregating themselves into ZIP codes, into socioeconomic groups. We are heading in the wrong direction as a society and as a culture,” he said. “I can’t really peg the reason, but I really do believe that we in society have sort of marginalized the poor and have sort of segregated the poor. And among the things we need to do is reintegrate ourselves with the poor because they really are us. That’s one of the lessons that I got out of all this.”
Whatever Ryan’s motivation, it’s hard to criticize those sentiments. Even likely Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said last week that it was a good thing that some Republicans are focusing on poverty in a way the GOP rarely has in the past.
“We welcome them with their ideas,” she said at a dinner for Emily’s List, a women’s advocacy group, “and we will match them.”