WASHINGTON – Seven white men and a white woman, Republican members of Congress all, boarded vehicles on Capitol Hill on Tuesday morning for a voyage deep into Anacostia, a largely black and poor section of Washington.
Their mission: to reassure nonwhite voters frightened by Donald Trump, their party’s presumptive presidential nominee.
Their odds of success: exceedingly low.
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The lawmakers must have perceived their mission to be risky, for they traveled with a veritable arsenal: a Capitol Police “mobile command center” truck, a canine unit, four or five squad cars and a half-dozen black police vans. Police closed the street to traffic, and security officials wearing plainclothes and earpieces kept a watchful eye in all directions as a white van disgorged the lawmakers at the residential addiction-treatment program they were visiting. House Speaker Paul Ryan zoomed up moments later in his two-Suburban motorcade.
The lawmakers, six of them in matching blue dress shirts, sat at a table in the shelter’s basement, then invited the cameras in to capture a few seconds of their supportive nods and ingratiating smiles while African-American residents told their tales of recovery. Later, they reassembled outside, where the GOP officials gave a news conference while residents of the shelter, House of Help City of Hope, stood silently, human props in the background.
“This is my third time,” Ryan said, “at the House of Help, the City of Help. Uh, the City of Hope. The House of Hope, City of Help.”
To his credit, Ryan takes poverty seriously and talks about it often. He made it the first item on his six-point policy agenda. But if Ryan thinks his outing to the Anacostia shelter is going to offset the yuuuuge damage Trump is doing to the party with Latinos, African-Americans, women, immigrants and others – well, to borrow a favorite Trump epithet, he’s a loser.
The first six questions for Ryan after his remarks at the shelter Tuesday were about Trump’s racist campaign to disqualify the judge in a fraud case against Trump because the judge is Hispanic:
“Do you have any regrets about your endorsement” last week?
“How can you continue to support the candidate?”
“How concerned are you that … it’s going to undercut what your party is trying to sell here?”
Ryan was blunt. “Claiming a person can’t do their job because of their race is sort of like the textbook definition of a racist comment,” he said. He acknowledged that “these kinds of comments undercut these things 1 / 8his anti-poverty rollout 3 / 8 and I’m not going to even pretend to defend them.”
But he elevated party unity above his concern about the party standard-bearer’s racism. “I’m going to defend our majority and … I see it as my job as speaker of the House to help keep our party unified,” he said. “I think if we go into the fall as a divided party, we are doomed to lose.”
That was a frank rationale for Republican officials’ deal with the Devil. Maybe party unity will protect their congressional majorities in the short term. Their tolerance of a bigoted nominee could also mean losing nonwhite voters indefinitely, and with them their standing as a national party.
Ryan argued that his agenda would fare better under Trump than Hillary Clinton, and that’s probably true. House Republicans have proposed cutting about $1 trillion over a decade from programs such as food stamps and welfare. Trump, for his part, has said food stamps “shouldn’t be needed often,” and he has complained that people “make more money by sitting there doing nothing than they make if they have a job.”
At Tuesday’s event, Ryan didn’t cite the deep cuts he plans for anti-poverty programs, only obliquely mentioning the need to “measure success based on results,” not dollars.
Another of the lawmakers, Rep. Bradley Byrne of Alabama, was more direct: “We get to save the taxpayers money because we won’t have to be doling out more money for these programs that don’t work.”
Democrats say the programs do work: that the average family uses food stamps for only eight to 10 months, and that, when you figure in programs such as the earned-income tax credit, the child tax credit and food stamps, government efforts have reduced poverty by some 40 percent.
But that’s an argument for another day – or another year. Ryan has said that passing legislation such as the anti-poverty agenda this year is “really not the goal.”
The goal for now is to remove the taint of Trump. And it’s going to take more than an armed tour of Anacostia.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.