Last night Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) received the Irving Kristol award from what has become the premier center-right think tank in D.C., the American Enterprise Institute.

House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press) House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

In his acceptance speech he sketched out an alternative to the progressive state, which places the government at the center of the economy and of our lives more broadly. In doing so he made an important concession conservatives too often deny: ” In uncertain times, people look for security. Progressives seem to have an answer. . . . ‘Creative destruction’ sounds a lot better than it feels. Change dislocates and disrupts. The hardships are real. And the progressive state offers a sense of security.” He argued that the security is false since government can’t pay for everything and can’t micromanage everything without collapsing.

But rather than tout “individualism,” Ryan outlined a conservative vision that “should reinforce our communities. Government should expand the space where a free society can thrive.” By that he means allowing families, churches and communities to make more decisions for themselves:

We have to explain that conservatism is about more than the economy. It’s also about our culture. It’s about the kind of country we want to be. It’s about the kind of life we want to share. We want people to enjoy the journey of living a full life — a life full of trials and tribulations, loss and gain, and ultimately the betterment of ourselves, our children, and our communities.


We have failed to communicate this vision to those who have never heard of it. We’ve retreated to our cultural cul-de-sacs in an effort to protect our immediate surroundings. Meanwhile, our inner cities, our barrios, and our poor rural communities have languished. This is where our opportunity lies. This is where we must go. This is where we must demonstrate our full vision of freedom and community.

How does that work in practice? “The people closest to the problem are the most likely to solve it — because they know the community best. And this is the opposite of progressivism, which believes Washington knows best.” He therefore recommends a Medicare system in which seniors choose their own plans and Medicaid in which states address their own populations. And in a bit of news-making he introduced his own alternative to Obamacare:

Today, our tax code provides an open-ended subsidy for an employee’s health insurance. It does nothing for people who buy insurance on their own. The code locks workers to their jobs, favors the wealthy, and pushes up costs. Well, we need to help families get and keep their insurance.


We can do that by attaching the tax benefit to the individual. And if they choose a plan less expensive than the benefit, they get a refund. People shouldn’t lose their insurance if they change jobs. The benefit should travel with the person—not with the job.


The big question in health care is who should decide? We think you should decide, not Washington. Under our plan, the federal government would make a defined contribution to your health-care security.


We would cap the growth rate of that contribution — to eliminate waste and to encourage competition. But we would also give more help to the poor and the sick — and less help to the rich. Support would go only to those who needed it. And under our plan, we would put you in control. Only you know what works best for you and your family.

It will be interesting to see if we get a legislative proposal along these lines, and if his promise to apply the same philosophy to “all the challenges of today: defense, energy, education, immigration, taxes” can be fleshed out. This sounds promising, if still a bit vague: “It’s not a vision of petty materialism. It’s not one of lonely individuals overseen by a massive government. It’s one of moral nourishment, of self-fulfillment, of growth and opportunity.”

There were several things noteworthy about the speech.

First, Ryan’s references to community and to Janesville have a humanizing effect, but they paint a picture of rural and small town America that is foreign to a lot of voters. How do, for example, single Americans form communities in a huge city? Is the “space” left to them going to leave them to the vagaries of urban life, in many cases one without close family around?

Second, Ryan is striving to eviscerate the Mitt Romney mantra “You built it,” which postulates a lone entrepreneur toiling to create jobs and economic growth. Instead, he talks about self-fulfillment (which may be staying home as a parent or studying French literature) in non-economic terms. The idea that government stepping back may afford us a richer life is not, however, immediately obvious. Ryan and others will have to provide some meaningful examples — a charter school not dominated by the teachers union, a tax code that give economic encouragement to families and small businesses, and financial regulations which allow community banks to flourish rather than permit the too-big-to-fail banks to dominate the financial markets.

Third, Ryan has left aside the “dependency society” rhetoric (which sounds pejorative in the wake of Romney’s 47 percent remark) in favor of a different view of 21st century Americans — people dealing with huge change, financial strain, family dislocation and more. In that sense, his vision comes across as more empathetic and less ideological.

His role in the conservative movement and the GOP specifically shouldn’t be underestimated. His health-care idea may become the basis (finally) for a GOP alternative to Obamacare. His efforts on immigration reform may be the key to its success. And perhaps most important, he is both beloved on the wonky right and the long-time representative of a blue congressional district. The ability to aim high and remain grounded is an important attribute — something, for example, presidential candidates must have.