At a glance, it would seem a lousy time to be a politician with ideas. Republican voters tossed aside thoughtful conservative candidates in favor of an entertainer with no particular governing philosophy, whose campaign is pitching a range of policies that, when not flatly impossible, are inchoate. Democratic voters, meanwhile, opted for a candidate whose ideas — more-expansive social programs, mainly — were already collecting dust in the 1960s. (To their credit, Democrats rejected the openly socialist candidate peddling ideas that came of age with the radio altimeter and the Model T.)
For Paul Ryan, though, the desert of ideas in American politics is an opportunity. In early December 2015, Ryan, just weeks into his tenure as speaker of the House, gave a speech at the Library of Congress entitled, “Confident America.” “If we want to save the country,” he told an audience that included House and Senate GOP leaders, “then we need a mandate from the people. And if we want a mandate, then we need to offer ideas. And if we want to offer ideas, then we need to actually have ideas. And that’s where House Republicans come in.” “Our number-one goal for the next year,” he announced, “is to put together a complete alternative to the Left’s agenda.”
The result, rolled out over this June and July, is “A Better Way: Our Vision for a Confident America.” Comprising six different areas of focus — poverty, national security, the economy, the Constitution, health care, and tax reform — the agenda aims to articulate not what Republicans stand against, but what they stand for. In Ryan’s preferred terms, it aims to turn the GOP from an “opposition” party into a “proposition” party.
While Ryan’s penchant for big ideas has been a staple of his congressional career — he authored the “Roadmap for America’s Future” in 2008, and was largely responsible for the party’s 2013 “Path to Prosperity” — the effort to create a comprehensive policy agenda began in earnest in January, at the House GOP retreat in Baltimore. What followed surprised many. As Politico wrote at the time: “Retreats like this week’s pow-wow at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor are typically contentious affairs. For the past four years, lawmakers used it as an occasion to scream at John Boehner and Eric Cantor. During their last session here, however, Ryan got a standing ovation as he made commitments to [pursue] big ideas.” At the retreat, members settled on five major areas of focus (tax reform and the economy were later split up). In February, six task forces, headed by the House’s committee chairmen, were established to explore each issue area. Over the next four months, the task forces held “idea forums,” in which members gathered to identify problems and brainstorm solutions. The forums were open to all House Republicans. Some task forces, such as the Task Force on Tax Reform, held hearings with policy experts to gather more information. Task-force leaders met regularly with Ryan to provide updates, and he set the timetable, but the task forces had wide latitude to tackle the issues as they saw fit. Ultimately, each task force drafted an extensive white paper detailing specific prescriptions.
That the famously fractious House Republican conference has coalesced around a single agenda is an accomplishment in itself, made possible, members insist, by Ryan’s “bottom-up” approach. “This is real,” says Kevin Brady (R., Texas), who is the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and led the Tax Reform Task Force. “Each piece — six major challenges and solutions — was developed by the conference, bringing the best ideas from all Republicans regardless of which committee they serve on or their region.” He notes that the final tax-reform blueprint incorporates ideas from more than 50 members. “It’s the first tax-reform proposal that reflects the consensus of House Republicans since Reagan’s reforms in the ’80s.”
That sense of common purpose holds across the board. “This is the first time that as a conference we’ve offered an alternative,” says Tom Price (R., Ga.), who chairs the House Budget Committee and co-chaired the Task Forces on Health-Care Reform and Poverty, Opportunity, and Upward Mobility. “This agenda is much more specific in every arena than we have been in the past, and it’s been embraced by the entire conference. We’ve come together and rallied around specific solutions.”
The six parts of the “Better Way” agenda constitute a whole, but at its heart is the issue closest to Ryan’s: poverty. It’s in part a product of Ryan’s private convictions; it’s in part a product of his professional formation under late House member and housing secretary Jack Kemp, who the New York Times once said had “brought more zeal to America’s poverty problems than any national politician since Robert Kennedy.” In January, speaking to National Review Online, Ryan noted that “there was a gaping hole [in conservative anti-poverty efforts] when Jack left [Congress], it just fell off for 15 years maybe — for an era, it just fell off for an era.”
In 2012, Ryan tried to turn the Republican party in that direction as Mitt Romney’s running mate. But the Romney team was not interested. The Washington Post reported in a 2012 post-election autopsy that “Ryan had wanted to talk about poverty, traveling to inner cities and giving speeches that laid out the Republican vision for individual empowerment. But Romney advisers refused his request to do so. . . . As one adviser put it, ‘The issues that we really test well on and win on are not the war on poverty.’” But in mid October, the Romney camp permitted Ryan to give an anti-poverty speech in Cleveland. It ended up being the first stop on a nationwide tour.
‘Paul has probably visited more low-income black communities than any member of the Black Caucus.’
On October 24, 2012, Ryan met with 20 grassroots leaders at Cleveland State University to learn about anti-poverty strategies that were working in their communities. The gathering was made possible by an old colleague of Ryan’s, Bob Woodson, a former Kemp hand who, in 1981, had founded the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, dedicated to renewing distressed, low-income communities. At the end of a series of testimonials — people telling stories of redemption after bouts of drug abuse or stints in prison — the activists asked Ryan if they could lay hands on him. “I could see the tears in Paul’s eyes,” says Woodson, “and also in the eyes of the Secret Service agents, who were uptight when we came in.” (Ex-felons pow-wowing with the Republican vice-presidential candidate had made some of the agents jumpy.) Two weeks later, the Romney-Ryan ticket went down. “When they lost,” recalls Woodson, “Paul wrote personal notes to each of those people, and that impressed me. But then he called a month later and requested I take him across the country to meet others like we met in Cleveland.”
And that’s what Ryan has been doing, at least once a month since the end of 2012, traveling across the country to visit with leaders working in their communities to combat poverty and its associated problems. He’s spent time with Pastor Darryl Webster of Indianapolis’s Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church, who created the Men’s Spiritual Boot Camp. He’s become friends with Pastor Omar Jahwar and Antong Lucky, who lead Dallas’s Urban Specialist program, which deploys former gang members to intervene with at-risk populations in Dallas’s roughest neighborhoods. He’s gotten to know Bishop Dr. Shirley Holloway, who runs House of Help City of Hope, which provides housing and treatment for 250 people suffering from alcohol or drug dependency in Anacostia, a neighborhood in Washington, D.C. (Says Woodson, pointedly: “Paul has probably visited more low-income black communities than any member of the Black Caucus.”)
It was at House of Help City of Hope that Ryan rolled out the “Poverty, Opportunity, and Upward Mobility” plank of the “Better Way” agenda, with Holloway at his side. Ryan has visited her facility several times since Woodson introduced them in 2013. Holloway insists that that’s the only way to really understand how to address poverty. “People from all over the world come to see what we do, because there’s no book, there’s no recipe; you have to come and see it.” She notes that other members of Congress who have ventured out to Anacostia to visit her organization have had rather transparent motives. “A lot of them want to take a photo; they don’t listen, they don’t want to understand. But Paul’s easy to talk to, he listens, and he asks questions; you know he’s trying to get it. That’s why I’m a Paul Ryan fan.” She says she supports Ryan’s efforts and the “Better Way” agenda, and she’s hopeful that it will change the way people think about poverty. “It’s not a black thing, it’s not a white thing, it’s not a red thing, it’s not a Puerto Rican thing, it’s not a Mexican thing; it’s a poverty-mindset thing. It’s a hopeless thing; it’s when people give up hope.”
For Ryan, the blight of poverty is a betrayal of the American dream.
For Ryan, the blight of poverty — especially the way that it has been entrenched by irresponsible, even corrupt, government — is a betrayal of the American dream. “The American Dream,” the “Better Way” agenda reads, “is the idea that, no matter who you are or where you come from, if you work hard and give it your all, you will succeed. But for too many people today, that’s simply not true.” The “Better Way” agenda is intended to make that dream a reality again.
House Republicans believe that that is possible. “We’ve addressed issues we believe are of utmost importance to the country,” says Price. “Clearly the administration and Secretary Clinton have not addressed these issues in a positive way, or a way that has resulted in any solutions, so I think the country is ready, willing, and able to embrace these.”
The challenge, he says, is to get the word out that there are solutions. That’s not easy at the moment — not least because of Republicans’ own presidential nominee, who has eschewed a coherent policy agenda and has not hidden his personal distaste for Ryan. Ideally, the “Better Way” would have been the cornerstone of a reform-oriented agenda articulated by a conservative standard-bearer. Instead, members of Congress are using the agenda to give themselves an identity not warped by Donald Trump’s gravitational pull.
If a Republican is elected in November, House members hope that the vision outlined in the “Better Way” agenda can be moved, bit by bit, into law. That is, of course, the ultimate goal. But they insist that even if that does not happen, the agenda is not a dead letter. Certain elements might be agreeable to a Democratic White House. But, more important in the long term: The agenda offers serious solutions to serious problems — and Republicans are confident that the public will come to see that. Members say that, little by little, they’re already seeing it. “It strikes a chord, almost with every audience I’ve spoken to in the last two months,” says Price. “A lot of heads nodding, a lot of agreement about these being issues that need to be addressed. It’s very heartening.”
The ultimate fate of the “Better Way” agenda is still to be determined. As the authors of the “Poverty, Opportunity, and Upward Mobility” report write: “This is the beginning of a conversation.” That is certainly the case. House Republicans will have to formulate the agenda’s aims in concrete, legislative language — then guide those bills into law, potentially against serious headwinds. Policy experts on both sides are sure to have much to say. And so will voters, many of whom — particularly in the wake of this topsy-turvy year — are likely to want more specifics on subjects such as immigration, which the “Better Way” treats comparatively briefly.
But none of that undermines House Republicans’ accomplishment. They have put forward the Great Ignored Agenda of the 21st century. It shouldn’t be.