The Corner

Paul Ryan, 2.0

Paul Ryan first rose to national prominence in 2008 by introducing a comprehensive budget-reform plan, the Roadmap for America’s Future. Breathtaking in its scope, the plan combined significant changes to the nation’s major entitlement programs, comprehensive tax reform, and cuts to discretionary spending to produce a compelling vision for a smaller, less intrusive federal government. Ryan’s plan had one of the most meteoric rises in modern American history. By 2011 it was Republican House orthodoxy; by 2012 every serious presidential candidate’s platform was substantially a version of Ryanism; by August of that year, its then-42-year-old author was nominated for vice president.

Ryanism 1.0 remains party orthodoxy, as witnessed by its essential endorsement across the GOP divide from establishment types like Senator Rob Portman to tea-party favorites like Senator Rand Paul. But today, Ryan himself moved the goalposts. His release of a 73-page comprehensive anti-poverty agenda, Expanding Opportunity in America, does what the original Roadmap did not: focus on what government can and ought to do to help people who are already enmeshed in our national safety net. As such, it stands not as a repudiation of Ryan 1.0, but as an essential supplement to it. Call it Ryan 2.0.

Ryan 2.0 speaks the language of compassion, something the modern GOP seems loath to do. It sets out some concrete policy ideas that implement the vision the congressman laid out last week at a speech before Hillsdale College’s Kirby Center. In that talk, Representative Ryan explicitly endorsed the establishment of the modern safety net. Noting that programs like Social Security and Medicare require every recipient to pay taxes for their benefits, he argued that “earned success and earned security go hand in hand” (emphasis in original).

Ryanism 2.0 appears to be a creed that says the government has an important role in caring for those who genuinely cannot support themselves. More important, it holds that government has an equally important role in helping people on the margin to support themselves.   

This is a necessary policy innovation, and it is also a necessary political innovation. Exit polls showed that the Romney-Ryan ticket lost because it was perceived as not “caring about people like me.” The ticket lost by 63 points among the 21 percent of Americans who thought that was the most important characteristic a president should have, and it lost by even greater margins among those who believed this in the swing Midwestern states of Ohio and Wisconsin. Ryanism 1.0 might be the perfect macroeconomic way to reinvigorate the country, but as a political matter it was found wanting.

There’s much to like and much to debate about the specifics of Ryan’s new proposal. Specifically, I fear that people who are struggling but mainly not poor — those households earning between $25,000 to $45,000 a year — will see little in it for them. I also think these people are likelier to come into regular contact with the safety net through unemployment insurance, disability insurance, and early Social Security retirement. Each of these programs can and ought to be significantly reformed to encourage work.

But those points of potential disagreement are more than made up for by my point of agreement with the congressman. The modern GOP is not and ought not to be a party of economic determinists who care more about aggregate growth than about individual people. The modern GOP cannot and must not be a party that ignores the actual running of government as it exists in favor of pretending that the person in the White House will not run a safety net that affects the daily lives of tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people. Ryanism 2.0 understands these points, and as such is a bold step in the right direction for conservatism and the GOP.

— Henry Olsen is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Henry Olsen — Henry Olsen is an elections analyst and political essayist who studies conservative politics, both here and abroad.

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