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Story highlights

Errol Louis: Paul Ryan's performance at Monday's town hall reflects the challenge congressional Republicans face this fall

They need to distance themselves from the President while maintaining White House support on key political issues, writes Louis

Editor’s Note: Errol Louis is the host of “Inside City Hall,” a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN) —  

House Speaker Paul Ryan used his televised town hall meeting Monday to gingerly walk across the tightrope congressional Republican leaders will face this fall: how to put distance between themselves and President Donald Trump without alienating the White House.

The goal of this Republican political unity, Ryan also made clear, is passage of a federal budget full of tax cuts for the wealthy and deep reductions in social service programs.

Ryan went out of his way to praise Trump’s latest attempt to undo the damage caused by his statements suggesting “both sides” of the recent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville were at fault for the resulting violence.

“I do believe that (Trump) messed up in his comments on Tuesday, when it sounded like a moral equivocation, or at the very least moral ambiguity, when we need extreme moral clarity,” Ryan said of the President.

But when asked if he would take steps to hold the President accountable by supporting a resolution for censure, Ryan firmly refused.

“I will not support that. I think that would be – that would be so counterproductive,” he said. “If we descend this issue into some partisan hack-fest, into some bickering against each other, and demean it down to some political food fight, what good does that do to unify this country?”

Pressed on whether he’d go as far as his former running mate, Mitt Romney, in demanding an apology from Trump, Ryan again refused.

“It is very, very important that we not make this a partisan food fight,” he said. “It is very important that we unify in condemning this kind of violence, in condemning this kind of hatred. And to make this us against them, Republicans against Democrats, pro-Trump, anti-Trump, that is a big mistake for our country, and that will demean the value of this important issue.”

Ryan’s take-home message is that people can disagree with Trump’s comments and actions individually, but he won’t use the power of his office to voice a collective objection.

That delicate balance – criticize the President, but only up to a point – reflects the reality that Ryan will need White House cooperation to pass the deep, permanent tax cuts that have long been his core political objective.

“The average tax rate on businesses in the industrialized world is 22.5%. And we are taxing American businesses 35% to almost 45%? That is a recipe for disaster,” Ryan said. “The biggest business we had in Wisconsin, publicly traded, was Johnson Controls. They are now an Irish company. Their worldwide tax rate is 12.5%… We’re losing businesses left and right. And this is among the reasons why we have to have fundamental tax reform. “

Those cuts come at a cost, of course. And one startling exchange illustrated how far Ryan and other conservative lawmakers intend to go to pay for the reduction in corporate taxes.

The moment came when a town hall questioner – a Dominican nun – asked Ryan, a fellow Catholic, to square his conservative attacks on Obamacare and other government programs with church teachings about the need to help the poor. Ryan slipped into a familiar right-wing talking point, the false claim that federal efforts to help the poor simply don’t work.

“We’re in the 32nd year of (the) War on Poverty. Trillions spent, and guess what – our poverty rates are about the same as they were when we started this war on poverty 32 years ago. So the status quo isn’t working, sister,” Ryan said. “We are not solving the problem of poverty.”

That’s highly debatable, and mostly wrong.

For one thing, the War on Poverty, launched by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, is 52 years old, not 32. And Ryan’s talking point, popular among conservatives, measures poverty only by a family’s income, rather than including the value of housing subsidies, food stamps, medical assistance, the Earned Income Tax Credit and other government supports created over the last 52 years.

If you only count income, it looks like the poverty rate only dropped from 19% to 15%, which seems small but is actually a 26% drop. And if we apply a more realistic assessment that includes the cash value of those other benefits, it turns out the poverty rate has dropped an impressive 40%.

Beyond the income debate, measuring the War on Poverty requires taking into account what really matters: whether people have been helped to live better lives since Johnson launched the crusade in 1964.

By counting the effect of the programs, the New York Times noted in 2014, “Infant mortality has dropped, college completion rates have soared, millions of women have entered the work force, malnutrition has all but disappeared. After all, when Mr. Johnson announced his campaign, parts of Appalachia lacked electricity and indoor plumbing.”

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And harping on the overall rate of poverty ignores the fact that it isn’t the same families that remain poor decade after decade. In 1967, the first wave of government antipoverty programs lifted 4% of low-income Americans out of poverty. Today, thanks to the additional programs that Ryan scorns, the comparable number is 44%.

Ryan’s remarks aren’t just a political debating point. Conservatives who think government has done little to improve life for the poor are likely to try and defund key programs.

That’s a battle that will be joined in earnest as Ryan tries to pass a budget later this year. Democrats will fight ferociously for the social programs they’ve created, and Ryan will try to reduce or gut them – and also continue to tread carefully to avoid antagonizing the White House.

It should be quite a tightrope act.