The book “The Way Forward” by Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), former Republican vice presidential nominee, can be viewed, like its author, either as a prelude to a presidential run or as a bid to grab the agenda for what may be both House and Senate majorities beginning in 2015.
Some of it — where one suspects he may be clearing the decks for a 2016 run — seems like a preemptive defense against attacks on votes to which conservative GOP purists may object (e.g. support for Medicare Part D, TARP and his most recent bipartisan budget deal). Without naming names, Ryan takes aim at those who attack imperfect legislation (i.e. all legislation). On Medicare Part D he explains: “I could have kept my hands clean and remained ideologically pure, but my conscience told me that it would be wrong to let the worse option win just because the better option wasn’t 100 percent perfect.” In a nutshell, that is the difference between mature lawmakers and the posers who seek to write everyone else out of the party, and it is a reminder how invidious are these right-wing scorecards, which never stop to examine the alternatives.
In that vein, Ryan also bashes the shutdown effort in 2013. He writes, “In short, the strategy our colleagues had been promoting was flawed from beginning to end. It was a suicide mission. But a lot of members were afraid of what would happen if they didn’t jump off the cliff. . . . The shutdown wasn’t a disagreement over principles, or even politics. Rather, it is proof of what happens to a party when it’s defined primarily by what it opposes, instead of by its ideas.” That certainly is a shot across the bow of the shutdown squad, three junior GOP senators (Kentucky’s Rand Paul, Florida’s Marco Rubio and Texas’s Ted Cruz).
The first half of the book is biographical and provides some detail most of the public likely didn’t know. His father was an alcoholic, dying young of a heart attack, and Ryan as a young man had to decide to stop drinking hard liquor. He is also more forthcoming about the large family and extended community in which he grew up and still lives. That in turn informs much of his political thinking, which stresses the role of civil society and the importance of allowing the government closest to the people to do the most it can until federal help is essential. One wonders whether the web of affiliations and the intimate setting of a rural American town have given Ryan an overly optimistic view of local government and civil society. In large, impersonal and urban settings do people have the same networks? What about singles who live far from family? It’s not coincidental that in such settings people look less to their neighbor (whom they may not know) than to public entities.
Ryan, however, makes a powerful case for a brand of conservatism that is more empathetic and geared toward problem-solving. Political watchers have been accustomed to seeing him as the budget expert dealing with abstract economic principles. But the meat of his message and the most intriguing parts of the book deal with his involvement with faith-based and secular groups fighting poverty and providing the one-on-one assistance that some people need to get back on track. He confesses that his old formulation of “makers and takers” sounds dismissive of the poor and casts all recipients of government relief in the same, unfavorable light. It’s rare to see a politician admit error, but it is also indicative of the divide in Ryan’s career between pre-2012 campaign and after.
The loss, he writes, had a sobering effect on him. While unfailingly polite and uncritical of Mitt Romney, he does agree with a common complaint about the campaign: It did not connect with ordinary Americans on topics relevant to their lives. Having learned that lesson, he then proceeds to spell out his proposals on everything from education to health care to fighting poverty to reforming entitlements. He directly associates himself with the conservatism of Jack Kemp — inclusive, optimistic and energetic. He favors limited but “robust” government, he tells us.
There are a few key takeaways from the book.
First, when he relates that he was a pre-teen when Ronald Reagan took office or describes his internship with a congressman in the 1990s, the reader is reminded that for all his experience in politics and fluency in complex issues, this is a very young man. While he is brimming with ideas and clearly doing the heavy policy lifting for the GOP, he also has time, should he decide that he wants to run for president 10 or even 20 years in the future.
Second, he gives a short and hawkish indictment of the president’s foreign policy but then retreats simply to a discussion of the defense budget. The defense budget does need attention, but this section also suggests he has yet to do as much thinking on national security as he has on domestic party. His instincts seem solid, and he correctly diagnoses the problem, but his own ideas are not fully explicated. (He doesn’t fully explain the contradiction between his criticism of Obama’s about-face on red lines in Syria and his own opposition to authorization the use of force.)
Third, in case there was any doubt, Ryan puts himself squarely and enthusiastically on the side of immigration reform. Dating back to his and Jack Kemp’s opposition to California’s Prop. 187, which destroyed the party’s reputation with Hispanics for decades, he has learned “to appreciate the value in immigration in a new way — from the economic standpoint.” He makes an impassioned argument for the positive economic consequences from a functioning immigration system. He proposes a border security push and, after that is verified as effective, a long process for legalization (not citizenship, as he formulates it) for those here illegally. “We have to deal with the world as it is, not as it should be. The simple fact is that there are around 12 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States and we need to address that reality in a commonsense way.” (Those are fighting words to some on the far right!) He also supports a path to citizenship for the DREAMers. If he runs, there frankly won’t be that much difference between his views and those of former Florida governor Jeb Bush (or Texas Gov. Rick Perry, for that matter).
Finally, in revealing his frequent contact with and policy input for the Romney presidential campaign well before he was picked as VP, he perhaps unintentionally offers himself up to the 2016 crop of candidates, should he decide not to run himself. Does Ryan prefer to be the candidate or the policy innovator behind the candidate? We’ll find out, but what is clear is that any conservative presidential candidate who wants creative policy ideas and perspective on the travails of the GOP needs to pick up the phone and call Ryan. If the book is not a campaign outline for himself, surely others can use it. And that, quite possibly, was the reason for the book.