Paul Ryan and conservatives have not gotten the message of this election

December 5, 2012

Win McNamee, Getty Images

Since the election, conservatives have begun to voice the need for an approach that addresses middle class concerns, acknowledges that the free market doesn’t always yield perfect outcomes, and allows for a role in government to protect the market’s excesses.

For instance, Paul Ryan is now moderating conservative economic rhetoric. Last night, at a Washington tribute dinner to conservative icon Jack Kemp, Paul Ryan offered some implicit criticism of Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” remarks, in which the former Republican presidential candidate disparaged nearly half the country as “dependent” on government and unable to “take responsibility for their lives.”

But are Ryan and conservatives really changing? Here’s what Ryan said:

“Both parties tend to divide Americans into ‘our voters’ and ‘their voters,’ ” Mr. Ryan said. “Let’s be really clear: Republicans must steer far clear of that trap. We must speak to the aspirations and anxieties of every American.”

This, of course, runs counter to the rhetoric Ryan has used for his entire political career. Just this August, Ryan told a group of conservative scholars that President Obama’s policies were creating more “takers” than “makers” in society.* Earlier this year, Mother Jones released a brief video collecting almost every instance where Paul Ryan divided the American public into “makers” (the wealthy “job creators” of Republican rhetoric) and “takers” (those who receive direct government benefits).

In fairness, it is possible that the election has caused Ryan to reevaluate his ideological tendencies, and move away from the plutocratic vision that defines his budget, which shreds the social safety net for the sake of funding huge tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans. Judging from his most recent policy statements, however, there’s no reason to think that this is likely.

To wit, despite shelving it in their negotiations over the fiscal cliff, House Republicans — including Ryan — have said that they intend to “support and advance” the principles of the Ryan plan, principles which grow out of a “makers versus takers” view of the world, where the government has a duty to force “responsibility” on takers, by slashing their benefits and directing the savings to the rich.

The best way to look at Ryan’s statement last night is not as a course correction, but as an acknowledgment that the undisguised language of conservative ideology is unpopular. The new plan, it seems, is just to repackage the same ideas as somehow helpful to the middle-class. We’ll see in a few years if the public will buy it.

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* UPDATE: We’ve fixed Paul Ryan’s quote above: He actually said Obama’s policies were creating more “takers” than “makers,” not the other way around.

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Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.

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