Is Paul Ryan Still Paul Ryan?

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Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

In the wake of the disastrous 2012 election, Paul Ryan recognized that he faced a central problem: He was beginning to be seen not as the bold paragon of fiscal rectitude that media accounts had relentlessly depicted when he first emerged as a Republican leader, but as an “Ayn Rand miser.” Over the last year he has moved to repair the damage, undertaking a putatively secret yet widely publicized poverty tour, and finally, last week, unveiling an actual plan to address poverty. The question looming over Ryan is whether he believes his policy profile was substantively flawed or merely misunderstood.

1. It is certainly true that Ryan’s new proposals represent an important step away from the political extreme he has occupied his entire career. All of Ryan’s previous proposals amounted to simplistic Randian exercises in upward redistribution. His poverty proposal contains signs of serious engagement with, and even concern for, the problem of poverty. The most interesting (not to say the best) element is his proposal to create an army of paternalistic bureaucrats to judge recipients of means testing. Much of the recent intellectual energy on the right and left has converged on the idea of consolidating poverty spending together into a simplified, universal grant. Ryan would go in the opposite direction, empowering social workers to devise custom plans for every recipient. Jamelle Bouie and my new colleague Annie Lowrey make the case against this idea; Reihan Salam makes the case for it. I agree with the former, but Ryan’s case is at least a serious analysis.

Society may forbid our love, but it will never die. Photo: Photo Illustration: Photos: Charlie Neibergall/AP, Oscar White/Corbis

2. There are genuinely sound policy ideas in Ryan’s plan. Unfortunately, those ideas are all beyond his reach. Ryan correctly notes that rigid job-licensing requirements, set up by incumbents to insulate themselves from competition, deny low-wage workers potential jobs. (The most notorious, but hardly unique, example is Utah’s requirement that you spend $18,000 to obtain the training to legally braid hair.) Likewise, Ryan endorses a relaxation of mandatory minimum sentences, joining a bipartisan effort to ratchet back several decades of rigid get-tough sentencing laws.

Unfortunately, since these laws are written at state and local levels, Ryan has no plan to actually change them. Still, he deserves credit for identifying a genuine problem.

3. Ryan’s worst proposal is to convert numerous anti-poverty programs from defined benefit levels for beneficiaries to chunks of money for states to use as they see fit. Ryan promises that the money could only be spent on the poor, but Bob Greenstein — who has spent a career studying the issue — explains how the promise is impossible; states would use the funds to replace other funding on the poor, which in turn would be redirected toward non-poverty spending.

The idea of letting states decide how to spend federal anti-poverty money has long divided the parties. Republicans assume that states will act in the best interest of their poorest citizens. Democrats assume the opposite. The trouble for Ryan is that, over the last few years, the United States has conducted a vast experiment that has proven his assumption wrong in the most horrifying way possible. Supreme Court Justice John Roberts allowed states to opt out of accepting Medicaid money to give health insurance to their poorest citizens. The money is, essentially, free. Washington would pay 90 percent of the cost of enrolling a person in Medicaid, and the remaining 10 percent would be made up, or more than made up, by the reduced cost of sick uninsured people showing up at the emergency room. In a display of almost fanatical indifference to the well-being of their most vulnerable citizens, nearly every Republican-controlled state government has eschewed this free money. Not only have state-level Republicans failed to display deep concern for the poor, they seem to actually enjoy subjecting them to intense physical and financial distress.

Citing this evidence, NBC’s David Gregory asked Ryan yesterday why anybody should trust state governments not to screw their poor citizens. Here is Ryan’s reply in its entirety. Read it carefully — there’s nothing even approaching a substantive response:

Well, look, first of all, these programs don't work with each other. In many ways, they end up being counterproductive, because poverty is a complicated problem and it needs to be customized. And secondly, we had basically a poverty management system with respect to the federal government.

If you want to have a healthy economy and have real solutions, you have to have a healthy safety net. And a safety net needs to work to get people out of poverty. So my argument here is let's not focus on effort, on input, how much money you spend. Let's focus on outcomes. Are we actually getting people out of poverty?

And the best way to do that, in my opinion, is to listen to people on the ground, the people who are fighting poverty person to person, and give them more flexibility in exchange for more accountability to actually get people out of poverty. We have learned good lessons about the right way to do this and not.

And I would argue that we can customize the benefit to a person based on their particular needs which actually helps them get out of poverty long term. We've spend $800 billion every year on 92 different programs to fight poverty. Yet we have the highest poverty rates in a generation.

This string of unrelated talking points that provides zero engagement with the question offers little reason to believe Ryan has grappled with the gaping flaw in his proposal.

4. The most encouraging thing about Ryan’s plan is that it is not a plan to cut funding for programs benefiting the poor. Instead, Ryan’s poverty plan would keep that overall level constant while shifting funds from some categories to others.

But this encouraging thing, in turn, highlights the most disturbing thing about it: It flatly contradicts Ryan’s other plan. And we are not talking about some obscure piece of legislation Ryan absentmindedly raised his hand to support while daydreaming on the House floor. We’re talking about the Ryan Budget, the chairman’s grandiloquent vision statement outlining the next several decades of public policy, hailed by the entire Republican Party, Ryan included, as a manifesto of civilizational rescue.

Hmm, "Ryan Plan," you say? Doesn't ring a bell. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Ryan Plan, more than any other thing, is a plan to cut spending on the poor. Two-thirds of its cuts in the next decade come on spending for poor people. If you eliminate those cuts from the Ryan plan, there are still plenty of items remaining in it to make black-hearted plutocrats chortle with sinister glee — cut the top tax rate, increase defense spending, throw millions of people off their health insurance, deregulate Wall Street — but the fiscal math would be wrecked.

One possibility is that Ryan is returning to his pre-Obama profile. (Before he emerged as America’s Accountant, Ryan spent the Bush years devising more Bushian versions of Bush’s own agenda, like tax cuts and Social Security privatization plans that the Bush administration rejected as fiscally irresponsible.) Ryan is preparing an agenda designed not for Congress but for a potential Republican presidency — it would be fully in keeping with the modern pattern for the GOP to stop caring about deficits the moment they return to the White House. Or perhaps Ryan plans to alter his famous budget in as-yet-unspecified ways.

The difficulty of separating spin from substance is highlighted by Ross Douthat’s latest column expressing joy and relief that the Republican Party is, at last, abandoning plutocracy. In 2012, Douthat concedes, Republicans ran openly as the party of the rich (“job creators good, class warfare bad, you built that and now the 47 percent are living off your hard work”). Ryan’s new poverty agenda is the latest evidence that they are tailoring their agenda to “working class votes.”

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The trouble is that I lived through the 2012 election, and Douthat was insisting that Republicans were not the party of the rich then, too. In early 2012, Douthat confidently asserted that Mitt Romney was “campaigning instead on a revenue-neutral tax reform and a modest tax cut for middle class investors, neither of which leaves him particularly vulnerable to the charge of “giving massive tax breaks to the rich.” Some of us pointed out that the math didn’t add up, and that the Romney-Ryan commitment to big tax rate cuts could not be reconciled with his more populist promises. No, no, Douthat insisted, the Romney platform amounted to “no net tax cut for the rich, tax relief for the middle class.

Douthat, with characteristically sharp hindsight analysis, now repeats the same shorthand description of Romney-Ryan that he dismissed at the time as desperate liberal smears. With characteristic optimism, he once again sees the Party moving boldly toward the center. But until Ryan actually abandons his commitment to what was known at least until last week as the Ryan Plan, he’ll find himself in the same position as he and Romney did in 2012 — offering one set of assurances to conservatives, and another to suspicious swing voters.