Just last month, the Washington Post ran a surprisingly uncritical, front-page article on House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), celebrating the congressman for his efforts “fighting poverty and winning minds.” The gist of the piece was that the far-right congressman is entirely sincere about using conservative ideas – both economic and spiritual – to combat poverty.
Until recently, Paul Ryan would have seemed like an improbable pick to lead the restoration of compassionate conservatism with a heartfelt mission to the poor. Of all the caricatures he has inspired – from heroic budget warrior to black-hearted Scrooge – “champion of the poor” has never been among them. And yet, Ryan has spent the past year quietly touring impoverished communities across the country with Woodson, while his staff digs through center-right think tank papers in search of conservative policy proposals aimed at aiding the poor. Next spring, Ryan plans to introduce a new battle plan for the war on poverty – one he hopes will launch a renewed national debate on the issue. […]
[T]hose closest to him say Ryan’s new mission is the result of a genuine spiritual epiphany – sparked, in part, by the prayer in Cleveland, and sustained by the emergence of a new pope who has lit the world on fire with bold indictments of the “culture of prosperity” and a challenge to reach out the weak and disadvantaged.
Well, if those closest to Paul Ryan think we should see his concern for the poor as heartfelt, who am I to argue?
All kidding aside, I don’t know the congressman personally, and can’t speak to his sincerity. But ultimately, whether or not Ryan had a “genuine spiritual epiphany” doesn’t much matter – either the Wisconsinite has a policy agenda that will make a difference in the lives of those in poverty or he doesn’t.
And at least for now, he doesn’t. Though we have not yet seen the agenda Ryan intends to unveil in the spring, we’ve seen reports that his vision “relies heavily on promoting volunteerism and encouraging work through existing federal programs, including the tax code.” He’s also reportedly focused on “giving poor parents vouchers or tax credits” for private education.
In other words, Ryan’s post-epiphany agenda is likely to be awfully similar to his pre-epiphany agenda.
What’s more, we’ve also seen plenty of other policy measures from the congressman. As we talked about in November, this is the same congressman whose original budget plan was simply brutal towards families in poverty, the same congressman who supports deep cuts to food stamps, the same congressman who wants to scrap Social Security and Medicare; and the same congressman who’s balked at raising the minimum wage and extending federal unemployment benefits.
If Paul Ryan is the new model for the Republican Party’s anti-poverty crusader, struggling families should be terrified.
Jared Bernstein recently said of Ryan, “the emperor in the empty suit has no clothes,” adding:
Ryan Poverty Plan
1. Cut spending on the poor, cut taxes on the wealthy
2. Shred safety net through block granting federal programs
3. Encourage entrepreneurism, sprinkle around some vouchers and tax credits
5. Poverty falls
If Ryan is in the midst of a personal transition from Ayn Rand to Scripture, more power to him. But I hope the political establishment, which has always taken the congressman a bit too seriously and accepted his radical vision with far too much credulity, will be duly skeptical as he slaps a fresh coat of paint on his old ideas.
Postscript: Peter Flaherty, a devout Catholic and former Romney adviser, told BuzzFeed, “What Pope Francis is doing is, instead of changing Catholicism, he’s changing the way the world views Catholicism… And I think Paul has the opportunity to do something similar for conservatism.”