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On Eve Of Convention, Paul Ryan Offers Glimpse Of The GOP's Road Not Taken

NPR's Steve Inskeep interviews Speaker of the House Paul Ryan in the Speaker's conference room at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan will play a prominent role at this week's Republican convention. But he will not be shaping the convention's messages — and a talk with Ryan suggests how different the convention might be if he did.

We sat with the speaker Thursday, beneath the vaulted ceiling of a corner conference room. It's part of his office suite at the Capitol, which he took over less than a year ago. In a 35-minute conversation, Ryan sketched out his vision of a Republican Party that favors free trade, embraces sophisticated attacks on poverty and aggressively reaches out to racial minorities. It is, in other words, a vision wildly at odds with the vision expressed by his party's presidential candidate, Donald Trump.

Ryan says he chose to endorse Trump in the interest of party unity. He did this while still criticizing many of Trump's statements. Ryan even said Trump's attack on a Mexican-American judge was "the textbook definition of a racist comment." He plainly received no assurances that Trump will change. In our talk, the most Ryan could say was that "I believe he's going to endeavor, to try" to change. Asked twice if Trump would be a "good president," Ryan would not answer yes or no. He contends only that Trump would be better than Hillary Clinton.

At the same time, Ryan sketched out some of the ideas he'd clearly prefer to be running on. Under his leadership, House Republicans published an agenda of their priorities in six broad areas. One priority is attacking the persistence of poverty, which lasts in many families for generations.

Ryan has a reputation as a policy wonk — fellow Republicans speak of him with admiration — but he also has critics who question that reputation. Some Democrats emphasize the support he has received from the billionaire Koch brothers. House Democrats contend he has achieved less as speaker this year than he expected. And this year's agenda was limited to begin with, as Ryan said there was no point in moving legislation that President Obama would veto.

Yet in this portion of the video, Ryan talks starkly of a problem that challenges America's very identity as the land of opportunity.

"People don't believe in the American idea anymore," he said. For many families, impoverished for generations, the dream of upward mobility has vanished or never really existed. People born in poverty, he says, are just as likely to stay in poverty as they were half a century ago — an assertion that the fact-checking site Politifact found to be broadly correct.

Watch Ryan take our questions on the issue here:

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