The reaction to Rep. Paul Ryan’s anti-poverty rollout was instructive. On the bright side, there seems to be support from the center-left through the center-right for many of the Wisconsin Republican’s ideas. From rabid partisans there was expected barbs and indifference.
The panel discussing the rollout at the American Enterprise Institute included Brookings senior fellow Ron Haskins. He described Ryan’s plan this way:
Paul Ryan . . . introduced a sweeping and enticing set of proposals to reduce poverty and promote economic opportunity. His plan includes experiments in giving state and local governments more flexibility to use welfare funds and to employ rigorous research to test the results; an expanded wage subsidy that would incentivize work for childless workers; changes in federal sentencing laws for non-violent offenders to reduce imprisonment rates and increase alternative forms of punishment that would not cramp the future of young kids who make mistakes; reforms of federal education policy at the preschool, K-12, and post-secondary levels; and regulatory reforms designed to reduce barriers to entry into the job market. This is the best, most comprehensive, and potentially bipartisan set of ideas for promoting opportunity that has appeared in many years.
He worries, however, that Republicans — not Democrats — will reject the ideas. (“Ryan, has formulated a proposal to help the poor and disadvantaged that does not ring a single Republican bell.”) One hopes that Haskins is underestimating the GOP support for pro-work, pro-opportunity, pro-federalism legislation. But his concern is not unwarranted.
The libertarian faction of the party has been so obsessed with cutting discretionary programs (a fraction of the debt) that it may object that this is a distraction. Those who pine for a pre-New Deal era of federal government won’t like this anymore than they like the Federal Reserve, the Food and Drug Administration or the Securities and Exchange Commission. And if they can’t distinguish between programs that encourage dependency and those that get recipients off public assistance, then there’s not much that Ryan will be able to do to win them over. However, if, as I suspect, this group within the party and in Congress specifically is louder than it is large, Ryan should be able to round up support.
Ryan is already getting flak from liberals who say that the plan is too “paternalistic” in its use of case managers. This is remarkable from people who favor mandatory insurance, oppose school choice and reject to entitlement reform that gives seniors too many choices. Of course, many if not most successful poverty-fighting programs — private or public at either the state or local level — use this concept. Ryan’s office was forced to defend the plan, pointing out that case management is only one route states can use and it “gives people more control over their future. Instead of getting a bunch of cookie-cutter benefits, they could work with a case manager to design a more personalized, customized form of aid.” His office also pointed out that it’s a tried and true method of holding recipients accountable and empowering recipients to come up with their own goals and structure their own game plan for reaching them. I suppose some critics wouldn’t like parole officers either or the successful array of New York City anti-poverty programs.
The key to Ryan’s success, I would suggest, is threefold. First, he needs to find Democrats who share Haskins’s view and are willing to work across the aisle. Second, he needs to press House leadership to adopt his agenda, just as he did on entitlement reform. I see no reason that leaders wouldn’t be amenable, but they may need convincing that this should be a top priority. And finally, whether or not Ryan runs for president, someone in the race will need to champion these sorts of reforms. By this time next year we’ll be in the thick of the 2016 pre-primary race. Ultimately the nominee becomes the head of the party for the duration of the election and that candidate will either embrace it or denigrate anything that doesn’t slash government and contain a tax cut.
I tend to put some stock in Ryan’s explanatory and organizational skills, so I remain optimistic. However, if partisans on both sides and divisive media types control the debate, it will go nowhere. And that would be a horrible shame for the party, but mostly for the country.