Ryan and Republicans

July 25, 2014

Paul Ryan yesterday introduced a sweeping and enticing set of proposals to reduce poverty and promote economic opportunity. His plan includes experiments in giving state and local governments more flexibility to use welfare funds and to employ rigorous research to test the results; an expanded wage subsidy that would incentivize work for childless workers; changes in federal sentencing laws for non-violent offenders to reduce imprisonment rates and increase alternative forms of punishment that would not cramp the future of young kids who make mistakes; reforms of federal education policy at the preschool, K-12, and post-secondary levels; and regulatory reforms designed to reduce barriers to entry into the job market. This is the best, most comprehensive, and potentially bipartisan set of ideas for promoting opportunity that has appeared in many years.

Now, the biggest question is will Republicans support him? The Ryan proposal does not make government smaller; it does not cut taxes – in fact it uses the tax code to transfer cash to the disadvantaged if they’re willing to work; it does not end any social programs; it amounts to a substantial commitment to the poor and has nothing for the wealthy. Ryan even proposed to pay for his wage subsidy for poor workers by cutting “corporate welfare.” In short, Ryan, has formulated a proposal to help the poor and disadvantaged that does not ring a single Republican bell. In fact, his proposal is potentially so appealing to both sides of the aisle that the Washington Post took it as a signal that he’s not running for president.

Ryan has been circulating these proposals for months; anyone paying attention could have known the magnitude and direction of what Ryan was up to. Yet even now, a day after he made his proposal public to a flurry of mostly positive media coverage, prominent Republicans are conspicuous in their absence of praise. John Boehner, Speaker of the House, is typical. Asked yesterday about Ryan’s proposal, he acknowledged that discussions of what to do about poverty are important, but “there’s probably a debate about what that help looks like.” An endorsement this is not.

The last major overhaul of the nation’s welfare system was led by Republicans who had just taken over the House and the Senate in the 1994 elections. They immediately introduced a major welfare reform proposal in the House and virtually every Republican in the House, plus many in the Senate and many Republican governors praised the proposal and vowed to fight to get it enacted. Republicans in both the Senate and House worked like a well-oiled machine to support their proposal, even after two vetoes by President Clinton. Their unity, persistence, and willingness to compromise with the Democratic president, paid off and their welfare “revolution” became law.

Now that the magnitude and character of Ryan’s proposal is public, many reporters and politicians are wondering why Ryan would take such an audacious course of action. Having watched him for many years and worked with him directly on a few occasions, here’s one possibility: he has an authentic desire to help the poor and is convinced that his proposals will increase opportunity for the disadvantaged. Now he needs to devote his attention to working with the small set of other Republicans – especially Senators Rubio and Lee – who have shown their desire to mount an attack on poverty, to get the entire Republican Party behind his proposals. If he doesn’t, and if the Republican Party does not follow, there is no chance that anything like the Ryan proposals will become law.