House Speaker Paul Ryan gave a candid speech on about the “State of American Politics” on Wednesday, during which he admitted that he too hasn’t always lived up to what he believes is a high-standard of political discourse.
A member of the audience asked Ryan after the speech if he had been persuaded differently on any policy position he has held and was willing to admit he was wrong.
Ryan — who earlier repeated an apology he had made in 2014 for a past statement about America’s supposed “makers and takers” when discussing poverty in the country — said he had been wrong about criminal justice.
“One of the things that I learned is that there are a lot of people who’ve been in prison that committed crimes that were not violent crimes,” he said. “Once they have that mark on their record, their future is really bleak.”
He said that, when he came to Congress in the late 1990s, he was a staunch supporter of tough crime laws. He admitted that both his own party and Democrats overcompensated at the time.
The policies, he said, “end up ruining their lives and hurting their communities where we could’ve have alternative means of incarceration, instead of basically destroying someone’s life. I’ve become a late convert.”
“Criminal-justice reform is something I never thought of when I was younger,” he continued. “Be tough on crime, be tough on crime.”
Ryan said criminal-justice reform bills would be brought to the House floor soon. He pledged to “advance this.”
“I didn’t necessarily know this before, but redemption is a beautiful thing. It’s a great thing,” he said. “Redemption is what makes this place work. We need to honour redemption. We need to make redemption something that is valued in our culture and our society and in our laws.”
Ryan’s candid comments on poverty and criminal-justice reform came at the end of a powerful speech about the current discourse in American politics, which he lamented would end up making Americans “distrust institutions” and “lose faith in government.”
“All of us as leaders can hold ourselves to the highest standards of integrity and decency,” he said. “Instead of playing to your anxieties, we can appeal to your aspirations. Instead of playing the identity politics of ‘our base’ and ‘their base,’ we unite people around ideas and principles.”
Ryan made repeated references to appealing to “ideas” over trading “insults,” a thinly veiled reference to his party’s presidential frontrunner, Donald Trump. Ryan made a point, however, to say he wouldn’t name names.
“Sometimes today we see a politics that’s degrading,” he said. “A politics that’s going to the base. The bases of our emotions of what dis-unifies us, not what unifies us.”
“Here’s our job: As leaders we need to raise our gaze, not prey on people’s separations or their identities,” he continued. “Listen, try and persuade, accept that people think differently, not that they’re bad people.”
In the question-and-answer session with members in the audience, Ryan admitted that he believes “we are slipping into being a divisive country.”
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