Like Marco Rubio—who, earlier this year, put forward a much-criticized “anti-poverty plan”—Paul Ryan doesn’t like poverty, either. (And neither does Rand Paul, as explained in a Wall Street Journal analysis of Ryan’s, Rubio’s, and Paul’s poverty ideas.) And like Rubio and Paul, Ryan might like to run for president in 2016, in a Republican candidate field that so far lacks anything like a front-runner. So that’s the context for Ryan’s speech on July 24 at the American Enterprise Institute to release a 73-page plan called “Expanding Opportunity in America.” Among progressives, the left, most Democrats, and people who actually know something about poverty and inequality, Ryan’s plan has been widely panned, too, and for good reason.
The release of Ryan’s plan, clearly an opening salvo in what Ryan hopes will be his 2016 presidential bid, comes amid a growing realization among Republicans that the GOP has utterly lost any ability to appeal to poor, working-class and lower-middle-class voters, in part thanks to the lasting impression left by Mitt Romney’s elitist, country-club, 47 percent-bashing 2012 campaign. In that context, as Christie Watch detailed last week in a special, three-part series on “reform conservatism” (see Part I, Part II and Part III), Ryan’s plan ought to be seen as part of the GOP’s fits-and-starts effort to recast its appeal to people who don’t own businesses or clip investment coupons. As the Christie Watch series detailed, however, the “reformicons” of the GOP—like George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism”—don’t really signal a break with Republican orthodoxy, nor is Ryan’s repackaging of traditional Republican views on the social safety net. But he’s already won major plaudits from one of the leading lights of the reform-conservative movement, Ross Douthat of The New York Times, who says that Ryan’s blueprint “synthesizes ‘reformicon’ ideas with proposals that fit pretty easily under the other possible rubric for a renovated conservative domestic policy.”
We’ll get to the details of Ryan’s plan in a minute, but at first it’s useful to point out that Douthat is absolutely right when he contrasts Ryan’s allegedly “big” ideas with the fact that among Democrats—and that would include President Obama—there is virtually no sign that they’re planning to put forward anything that remotely resembles a big idea. There is, says Douthat, a “growing contrast between the policy ferment on the Republican side of the aisle and the staleness and or small-ball quality of the Democratic Party’s ‘what comes after Obama?’ agenda,” such as “an expansion of Social Security to a guaranteed income.” True, that.
Amid the widespread disparagement of Ryan’s plans by even moderate liberals, who recognize that it’s mostly yet another Republican plan to wrap any and all anti-poverty program into one big, unregulated block-grant ball of wax for the states, there is at least some grudging respect for one part of Ryan’s plan, namely, his scheme to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit. The EITC, which had its origins as a conservative, Milton Friedman-backed idea, has since earned strong support on both sides of the aisle. The Washington Post says in an editorial: