Paul Ryan is ready to move beyond last year’s failed presidential campaign and the budget committee chairmanship that has defined him to embark on an ambitious new project: Steering Republicans away from the angry, nativist inclinations of the tea party movement and toward the more inclusive vision of his mentor, the late Jack Kemp.
Since February, Ryan (R-Wis.) has been quietly visiting inner-city neighborhoods with another old Kemp ally, Bob Woodson, the 76-year-old civil rights activist and anti-poverty crusader, to talk to ex-convicts and recovering addicts about the means of their salvation.
Ryan’s staff, meanwhile, has been trolling center-right think tanks and intellectuals for ideas to replace the “bureaucratic, top-down anti-poverty programs” that Ryan blames for “wrecking families and communities” since Lyndon B. Johnson declared a war on poverty in 1964.
Next year, for the 50th anniversary of that crusade, Ryan hopes to roll out an anti-poverty plan to rival his budgetary Roadmap for America’s Future in scope and ambition. He is also writing a book about what’s next for the GOP, recalling the 1979 tome that detailed Kemp’s vision under the subtitle, “The Brilliant Young Congressman’s Plan for a Return to Prosperity.”
Ryan “has always been more than the budget guy. His vision is much broader than that,” said Bill Bennett, a conservative political theorist who worked with Kemp at Empower America, where Ryan got his start. “You can’t be the governing party unless you offer people a way out of poverty.”
Advisers say Ryan’s immediate goal is to become chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee when Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) steps down in 2015. That would give him an ideal perch to advance an expanded agenda that combines an overhaul of the tax code and federal health and retirement programs with kinder, gentler policies to encourage work and upward mobility.
But Ryan has not ruled out a run for president, according to his closest advisers. On Saturday, he delivered the keynote address at the annual birthday bash of Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R). And last week, he told the Des Moines Register that he will give the race a “hard look” after the 2014 midterms.
“Washington has gummed up the works,” Ryan told the Iowa crowd. “It’s made it harder for people to get ahead, and the idea of upward mobility, of equal opportunity, is slipping farther and farther away from people who haven’t seen it for generations. . . . We can restore America as the party of equal opportunity to show how these ideas can prevail.”
All this has left the Washington budget battle feeling like an afterthought in Ryan’s life, even as he takes center stage on a panel tasked with preventing another politically damaging government shutdown in January. Democrats hope Ryan will agree to targeted tax hikes and establish himself as a pragmatic leader.
But Ryan has rejected that idea. Pete Wehner, a longtime informal adviser, said Ryan is unlikely to abandon a principle — no new taxes — that remains at the heart of his philosophy.
“Paul’s not a dealmaker,” Wehner said. “And the next budget deal is not going to be a central element of Paul’s legacy.”
Ryan’s new emphasis on social ills doesn’t imply that he’s willing to compromise with Democrats on spending more government money. His idea of a war on poverty so far relies heavily on promoting volunteerism and encouraging work through existing federal programs, including the tax code. That’s a skewed version of Kempism, which recognizes that “millions of Americans look to government as a lifeline,” said Bruce Bartlett, a historian who worked for Kemp and has become an acerbic critic of the modern GOP.
“They want to care,” Bartlett said of Ryan and modern Republicans. “But they’re so imprisoned by their ideology that they can’t offer anything meaningful.” Ryan has explained the difference by noting that the national debt has grown enormously since Kemp ran for president in 1988, nearly doubling as a percentage of the economy.
Ryan’s interest in poverty dovetails with a larger effort to revamp the GOP, which has lost the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus commissioned an autopsy of the 2012 campaign that identified “the perception that the GOP does not care about people” as “a major deficiency,” and recommended a renewed effort to “be the champion of those who seek to climb the economic ladder.”
Since then, the search has been on for a conservative response to rising income inequality and the record 15 percent of Americans who live in poverty.
At the Capitol last week, the conservative Heritage Foundation held a day-long anti-poverty forum to examine the historic rise in food-stamp dependency since the recession and methods of prison rehabilitation. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who led the push to defund Obama’s new health-insurance initiative, gave the keynote address, arguing for a revival of “civil society,” volunteerism and charity.
“The focus on limiting government spending will continue to be important, but it’s not enough,” Lee said afterward. With Democrats in control of the Senate and the White House, “it’s easy for us to get stuck in the ‘no’ position. But the fact is we have to have a policy agenda.”
That shift may be particularly critical for Ryan, 43. He rose to prominence as the author of an austere budget blueprint that calls for privatizing Medicare and sharply slowing federal spending on the poor.
Then he joined the GOP ticket with Mitt Romney, who was cast by Democrats as an out-of-touch plutocrat. Romney’s characterization of lower-income Americans — the “47 percent” — as “victims,” “dependent upon government” and unwilling to “take personal responsibility and care for their lives” was particularly devastating.
Priebus, a fellow Wisconsinite who has known Ryan since their College Republican days, said that image will not stick to the affable, down-to-earth Ryan.
“Paul’s his own person. He can be at the Kenosha County fair drinking Miller Lite in shorts and a T-shirt,” Priebus said. Fighting dependence and improving opportunity “were always things that were on his agenda.”
“Perhaps there were things stirred in the election that brought things to the top of the list for him,” Priebus conceded. “But now he’s got an elevated platform that gives him more horsepower to see some of these things through.”
Ryan has tightly controlled his public statements since the election, and he declined to be interviewed for this story. However, four advisers who worked with him on the campaign said he was mortified by Romney’s 47-percent remarks. Two of those advisers said Ryan spoke directly to Romney about it in mid-September 2012, soon after Mother Jones posted a video of the $50,000-a-plate Florida fundraiser where Romney seemed to write off nearly half the population as unreachable by Republicans.
“I think he was embarrassed,” Woodson, the civil rights activist, said of Ryan. “And it propelled him to deepen his own understanding of this.”
Unlike Romney, Ryan is no child of privilege. His dad died when he was 16, and he paid for college with a mix of Social Security survivors checks and maxed-out student loans, according to his brother, Tobin Ryan. During a semester in Washington, he went to work on Capitol Hill and found his way to Empower America, working directly for Kemp.
In the mid-1990s, crime and poverty were hot national issues. Kemp was a font of innovative ideas for reviving inner-city commerce, rebuilding public housing and overhauling the welfare system. He was pro-immigration, pro-equal opportunity and, above all, pro-tax cuts, which he viewed as government’s primary tool for promoting growth.
Unlike other Republicans, Kemp also frequently visited black and Hispanic voters and asked them directly for their votes.
Two days after Ryan was introduced as Romney’s running mate, he pushed to do the same. Advisers recall Ryan in workout clothes in a Des Moines Marriott, telling campaign officials in Boston that he had two requests: First, to meet the staff in person. And second, to travel to urban areas and speak about poverty.
No one said no. But with Romney focused relentlessly on Obama’s failure to improve the economy for middle-class Americans, the idea always seemed off-message. “We struggled to find the right timing to dovetail it into our messaging schedule,” Romney strategist Ed Gillespie said via e-mail.
Ryan adviser Dan Senor said Ryan argued that “47 million people on food stamps is an economic failure.” But Ryan did not get clearance to deliver a speech on poverty, his sole policy address, until two weeks before the election.
Ryan had “frustration during the campaign for obvious reasons. His message, which was more than jobs and business, was secondary, subsidiary. So you didn’t get the full Ryan,” said Bennett, who vacationed with Ryan and his family in Colorado this summer. When the campaign was over, Ryan found himself “wanting to say more about who he was and introducing that broader agenda.”
Ryan had sought Woodson’s help with his poverty speech. The two reconnected after the election and began traveling together in February — once a month, no reporters — to inner-city programs supported by Woodson’s Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. In Milwaukee, Indianapolis and Denver, Woodson said, Ryan asked questions about “the agents of transformation and how this differs from the professional approach” of government social workers.
Like Woodson, the programs share a disdain for handouts and a focus on helping people address their own problems. In Southeast Washington, Ryan met Bishop Shirley Holloway, who gave up a comfortable career in the U.S. Postal Service to minister to drug addicts, ex-offenders, the homeless — people for whom government benefits can serve only to hasten their downfall, Holloway said.
At City of Hope, they are given an apartment and taught life skills and encouraged to confront their psychological wounds. They can stay as long as they’re sober and working, often in a job Holloway has somehow created.
“Paul wants people to dream again,” Holloway said of Ryan. “You don’t dream when you’ve got food stamps.”
Trips to Newark and Texas are slated for later this month. Woodson said Ryan has also asked him to gather community leaders for an event next year, and to help him compare the results of their work with the 78 means-tested programs that have cost the federal government $15 trillion since 1964.
The takeaway for Ryan, a Catholic, has been explicitly religious. “You cure poverty eye to eye, soul to soul,” he said last week at the Heritage forum. “Spiritual redemption: That’s what saves people.”
How to translate spiritual redemption into public policy? So far, Ryan’s speeches have been light on specifics.
Scott Winship, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who has been advising Ryan’s staff, said his task is tricky. Conservative anti-poverty prescriptions tend either to promote broad economic growth, which is nothing new for the GOP, or to place new controls on existing government programs — which, he said, “makes Republicans look like they’re just punishing poor people.”
The key, Winship said, will be coming up with incentives “that are consistent with conservative values about personal responsibility and smaller government.” One idea: giving poor parents vouchers or tax credits to invest in their kids’ educations.
“There’s definitely a feeling that conservatives need to get in this arena,” Winship said. Otherwise, “the voices on the left are going to have the entire conversation to themselves.”
Paul Kane contributed to this report from Iowa.