Paul Ryan gave a big speech today that seemed designed to send a message to elite opinion-makers: No, the GOP is not Donald Trump’s party, really it isn’t! Or, at least, not yet, anyway.
Ryan called for our political debate to be driven by ideas, rather than insults, though he didn’t directly mention Trump, and he didn’t get into the inconvenient question of whether he will support Trump if he wins the nomination (which he has said he will do). Nor did Ryan directly call out the GOP candidates (Trump and Ted Cruz alike) for their increasingly ugly xenophobia and demagoguery, which is only growing more disturbing in the wake of the attacks in Brussels.
But let’s take Ryan’s speech seriously, anyway. He offered himself as Exhibit A in the need for a more civil politics, essentially retracting the “makers and takers” rhetoric that had for so long defined him ideologically:
“There was a time that I would talk about a difference between ‘makers’ and ‘takers’ in our country, referring to people who accepted government benefits. But as I spent more time listening, and really learning the root causes of poverty, I realized something. I realized that I was wrong. ‘Takers’ wasn’t how to refer to a single mom stuck in a poverty trap, trying to take care of her family. Most people don’t want to be dependent. And to label a whole group of Americans that way was wrong. I shouldn’t castigate a large group of Americans to make a point.”
It’s easy to snark about this. But let’s assume Ryan is 100 percent sincere. What might this mean in practice for Paul Ryan’s GOP going forward?
It should be noted that there are two separate ingredients that make up “makers and takers” doctrine. The first is the idea that those who are relying on government want to be dependent on it, because it’s an easier life. The second is the idea that those who are relying on government are stuck in a plight, perhaps against their will, that is counter-productive for them, in that it increases dependence and saps individual initiative.
Ryan is essentially retracting the first half of this, admirably noting that a single mom who relies on government to take care of her family is not a “taker” and does not “want to be dependent.” In saying this, Ryan is essentially apologizing for the most politically poisonous ingredient of makers-and-takers-ism — captured most perfectly in the Mitt Romney “47 percent” remarks — which came to define the GOP ticket in 2012.
But the second half of makers-and-takers-ism is an essential ingredient, too. Recall that Ryan also came to be defined in 2012 by another unfortunate turn of phrase that put a whole different spin on the idea:
“We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.”
In the most charitable interpretation of this telling, the “taker” (the person who relies on public assistance) is more of a victim than a willing participant in his own abject takerism — the taker has been lulled into a trap of government dependence. If Ryan still believes this characterization of public assistance, it would be perfectly compatible with what he said today.
If I understand reform conservatism correctly, the reformocons want Republicans to break ideologically and substantively, at least to some degree, with this second aspect of makers-and-takers-ism, too. And only last week, Paul Ryan gave an interview to John Harwood that dismayed some of the reformocons, precisely because it showed no meaningful willingness to do that.
In that interview, Ryan was asked directly whether the rise of Donald Trump — who does not tell struggling GOP voters that the answer to their economic problems can be found in idealized notions of free markets and limited government — should lead Republicans to rethink whether their economic agenda is offering these voters anything. Ryan didn’t bite. As Ross Douthat put it, Ryan fell back on “a 1980s-era message: cut spending, cut taxes, open markets, and all will be well.” Or, as James Pethokoukis described it, “at no point did Ryan acknowledge that the rise of Trumpism possibly signals a Republican agenda inadequate in meeting the anxieties and real struggles of middle- and working-class America.”
In other words, it’s still just more tax cuts across the board, especially for the wealthy, more promises of entitlement reform that shouldn’t inspire confidence in worse-off beneficiaries, and no proactive government “middle-class agenda that acknowledges the challenges as well as the opportunities from globalization and technological change,” as Pethokoukis puts it.
Trump appears to be exploiting this vacuum. To be clear, Trump is selling a scam to Republican voters. He rails against hedge-funders for gaming the tax code, but his own plan would lavish an enormous windfall on top earners. He rhetorically suggests a government role to cover those who lack health insurance, but his own Obamacare-repeal-and-replace plan would mean many millions more uninsured. He dumbs down the real impact of trade deals. His wretched xenophobia is premised on the suggestion that we need mass deportations to remove one of the most pressing economic threats struggling Americans face.
But Trump is offering these voters something, or at least, they seem to think he is: he speaks to their sense that free trade has screwed them and that bought-and-paid-for politicians are just fine with that; he won’t touch entitlements; and he isn’t peddling them warmed-over trickle down dogma. Ryan today renounced the harsher side of makers-and-takers-ism, and he called out Trump (indirectly) for exploiting GOP voters’ economic struggles in dangerous ways. All good! But how far does this renunciation of makers-and-takers-ism really go, and what proactive agenda is Ryan offering to these voters that should lead them to conclude that more “responsible” GOP leaders represent their interests any better than Trump does, or seems to be doing?