BuzzFeed political reporter McKay Coppins’ new book, The Wilderness: Deep Inside the Republican Party’s Combative, Contentious, Chaotic Quest to Take Back the White House, is a whirling tapestry of narratives with many prominent GOP political figures. Like so many members of the national press corps, Coppins focuses on the machinations of the 2016 Republican race. But he also weaves in behind-the-scenes details on how conservatives are changing the national conversation about poverty and opportunity.
As we’ve chronicled here at Opportunity Lives, anti-poverty warrior Bob Woodson led Paul Ryan across the country to witness firsthand the grassroots, on-the-ground leaders who are successfully combating violence, homelessness, drug addiction and unemployment.
Yet as Coppins tells it, Woodson first had to vet Ryan’s intentions following the 2012 election. A winner of the Presidential Citizens Medal and MacArthur Genius Grant for his work at the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, Woodson had seen so many politicians grin and grip, embracing grassroots leaders (many of them African-American) for a one-off photo-op without truly investing in the cause. The vetting took time, and Woodson enlisted the help of ex-felons and drug addicts at a rehabilitation center called Graceview in Southeast Washington, D.C. “For Woodson’s purposes, the visit to Graceview would give him a chance to see what the shelter’s residents — consistently keen judges of character in his experience — thought of Ryan’s sincerity,” Coppins writes.
“‘The criminal lifestyle makes you very discerning,’ Woodson later told me. ‘You can’t lip-synch authenticity around people like that.’”
Woodson later challenged Ryan in a dinner at Charlie Palmer’s on Capitol Hill.
“‘I want to know why you care. You’re a political celebrity. Everywhere you go, people want to talk to you. You don’t need this. The campaign is over. So, why do you care?’” Coppins writes of the exchange.
According to Coppins, Ryan replied that he worried “the identity politics and class warfare that President Obama had so effectively deployed during his reelection bid were threatening to permanently impede the country’s ability to tackle big problems, like poverty — an issue where he believed that good-faith members of both parties could work together constructively.”
“‘We’re splintering,’ Ryan said. ‘We’re being divided. I’m worried about that, and I want to do something about it. But I’ve got some gaps in my knowledge, and I’m hoping you can help me out with that.’”
But after that exchange — along with a promise to devote at least one full day per month (a “tithe” of his time) to antipoverty work — Ryan won Woodson over, leading the poverty fighter to present the lawmaker a mock cover of Time magazine with a photo of Ryan and the cover line: “Paul Ryan Named Ambassador to the Hood.”
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Coppins chronicles how Ryan last year released his plan to fight poverty with a focus on empowering state and local leaders — people closer to the front lines — but found resistance from members of Congress.
“But Ryan wasn’t entirely without hope,” Coppins writes. “Two years after setting out, there was no denying that his post-2012 effort to wedge poverty into the Republican Party’s national agenda had made serious progress. Potential 2016 standard-bearers from every ideological corner of the GOP were now regularly talking about the plight and problems of the poor, and many were pledging to make those issues cornerstones of their presidential campaigns if they decided to run.”
Coppins reports that, in spite of the congressional gridlock, Ryan was heartened to spend time with poverty activists who were finding success on the ground. They gathered under Woodson’s guidance at a boardroom of the National Association of Realtors building on New Jersey Avenue in Washington, D.C.
“Looking around the table, Ryan saw pioneering pastors who were coming up with new solutions for homelessness, tireless counselors who spent all their time attending to heroin addicts, and an inspiring band of extra-mile advocates who were pouring their lives into helping actual people each day, instead of dreaming up doomed policy ideas,” Coppins writes of the scene. “If his excursions into their churches and half-way houses had convinced him of anything, it was that their day-to-day work was infinitely more meaningful than anything he could accomplish in Washington.”
Carrie Sheffield is a Senior Writer for Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter @carriesheffield and on Facebook.