Paul Ryan, the Not-Quite Poor, and the Media Environment

by Peter Spiliakos

Some almost random thoughts:

1.  Paul Ryan is very rare and valuable  not only because he is willing to stick his neck out with major policy proposals, but because he is willing to change his policy proposals in response to constructive criticism. The evolution of his Medicare proposals from Ryan’s Path to Prosperity to the Ryan–Wyden plan gives a good idea of Ryan’s combination of policy boldness and thoughtfulness. 

2.  I think this would be a good time to go back and reread Lawrence Mead’s Beyond Entitlement. While Charles Murray’s Losing Ground kicked off a national conversation about the incentive structure of welfare policy (especially AFDC), Mead’s reform ideas were more influential in the structure of the 1996 welfare reform. One of Mead’s key insights was that both the left and the right were too libertarian. The Left wanted to use the tax-and-transfer state to give the working-aged money without any reciprocal obligations. The right resented the idea of government provision and wanted to cut welfare spending by as much as politically possible. Reihan Salam makes the argument for Lawrence Mead–Paul Ryan poverty policy better than I ever could.

3.  While Paul Ryan’s attempt to tackle poverty policy is a good idea in itself, I would expect any political benefits to be limited. Henry Olsen pointed out that the key Midwestern swing-states just don’t have enough persuadable and right-leaning white college graduates for Republicans to win high turnout elections. For Republicans to win elections in presidential years (barring extraordinarily favorable circumstances), the GOP is going to have to make gains among non-Evangelical whites who do not have a college degree, and nonwhites.

As Artur David pointed out, the Republican lack of interest in the poor hurts the with African Americans across the income distribution.

I recognize most African-Americans are middle-class. I recognize most African-Americans work. There is a great sensitivity in the African-American community toward low-income people because most African-Americans are only a generation removed from that kind of poverty and still regularly face it and encounter it even in family reunions.

If you go into the African-American church, you might have a pew full of doctors and lawyers and a pew behind them is many cases full of people on welfare. There is a social confluence in the African-American community of high-income and low-income people that creates a sensitivity toward poor people.

I would guess that this is also somewhat true for Hispanic voters. For reasons related to residential patterns, middle-class African Americans and Hispanics are more likely to have more economically struggling people within their social networks, and are probably less likely to vote for a candidate who seems contemptuous of (or even just uninterested in) those who are in poverty. A serious poverty policy won’t win very many votes by itself, but it might help the GOP get a hearing from people who know that cutting taxes on high-earners isn’t enough.

4.  Henry Olsen also points out that the right’s political problem with those on the other side of the earnings median isn’t just a poverty problem. It is also an insecurity and downward mobility problem for people who are above the poverty line, but who feel like their wages are stagnant and who worry about what would happen if they were laid off and had to take several part-time jobs that did not offer health insurance. Alongside a poverty plan, it is at least as important that Republicans offer policies that limits the tax penalty on working parents, and reform health insurance to give families access to catastrophic health insurance more cheaply and less intrusively than Obamacare.

Olsen wrote that people who were in households that were above the poverty rate, but below the median household income could reasonably look at the Republican agenda and ask, “What’s in it for me?” For starters, how about a more pro-parent tax code to increase take home pay and free market health insurance reform that increases peace of mind for struggling working families, while saving the federal government money (relative to Obamacare).

5.  The great news is that Republicans, led by Senator Mike Lee, are very quickly shifting their policy focus to include the immediate concerns of people who are under the earnings median. The bad news is that the right’s communication infrastructure is not keeping up with the right’s best politicians.  For electoral purposes, it doesn’t matter how good someone’s ideas are if the voters you need to win over never hear about those ideas or only hear about them in hideously distorted form.  It is only a little better if the voters only hear about them for a few minutes during a debate that takes place several weeks before the election.  It takes people time to assimilate new ideas and be persuaded. 

That means that the voters that the right needs to add to its coalition need to hear about those ideas months (preferably a year or more) before the election. There are millions of Americans who have little or no family history of voting Republican and no memory of successful Republican governance at the federal level. Republican candidates can’t just show up and start talking about their health care plan the month before the election. The burden shouldn’t even be on Republican candidates. The right needs institutions that can publicize good ideas to people who don’t consume much right-leaning media like talk radio and Fox News. Hundreds of millions of millions of dollars were wasted in 2012 on commercials that were third-rate imitations of Republican ads from the 1980s. It wouldn’t have helped if those ads had been first-rate imitations of a 30-year-old strategy. People (especially young people) consume media differently and have a different frame of reference.  Some of those hundreds of millions of dollars would be better spent reaching those voters with the best conservative ideas in the fall of 2015, rather than flooding the airwaves with ineffective 30-second ads in the fall of 2016.

Postmodern Conservative

Reflections on politics, culture, and education.