Review: Paul Ryan changes delivery but not direction
By Stephanie Rogan
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.
Paul Ryan has written a book, just like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama before him. Unlike those of his Democratic rivals, though, the U.S. congressman and former vice presidential candidate’s is less memoir than campaign manifesto. Ryan’s fiscal prescriptions are familiar, but it’s also obvious he is trying to find a broader audience for them. Though it’s tempting to dismiss “The Way Forward” as just the musings of another presidential wannabe, the book’s title probably accurately reflects the notion that its contents will guide the Republican strategy in the years to come.
Along with the requisite nods to his hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin, and his family, Ryan considers how to reinvigorate his party’s image and lays out a wide range of policy proposals. There are dire warnings of debt fiascos and calls for reform to federally run social safety nets. Ryan repeats his vitriolic desire to repeal Obamacare and replace it with a refundable tax credit that Americans could use to buy healthcare insurance. He also stands by his 2004 plan to partially privatize Social Security.
There are also familiar attacks on the president, calling the administration lawless and Obama an old-school liberal progressive whose “policies represent an ideological mission to reorder the human condition.” Ryan is also cautiously critical of his own GOP, particularly the way it used the government shutdown as leverage to defund the president’s signature healthcare legislation. “Frankly, we’ve become lazy and complacent,” he writes. “Instead of doing the hard work of persuading people, we’ve opted for the easy route, focusing our attention on communities where people already agree with us and trying to turn out the base.” He wants Republicans to stop preaching to the choir, even if it’s not obvious Ryan successfully manages the task himself in “The Way Forward.”
Ryan, who has been elected to the House of Representatives for eight two-year terms and was Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012, sees nothing wrong with Republican ideas but rather in their message. If only they could be properly expressed, Americans would see the benefit. Ryan firmly believes that focusing on conservative economic principles and forgetting social ones would be a mistake. And yet “The Way Forward” neglects to mention abortion, gun control or gay marriage.
The book at least tackles one issue that straddles both economic and social life: poverty. The penultimate chapter is dedicated to Ryan’s time visiting poor communities in recent years. It gives him the opportunity to backtrack on earlier comments about men in inner cities “not valuing the culture of work ” and to address an anti-poverty proposal he introduced in July, which mainly tries to combine a number of assistance programs and shift responsibility for them from the federal government to the states. “When government tries to do too much,” he writes, “it weakens our country. It pulls us apart. It erodes civil society.”
Ryan says his plan and its “Opportunity Grant” wouldn’t add any cost to the budget, but it has received mixed reviews. While he wants to help single, childless workers by giving them a bigger tax break, Democrats prefer the more direct approach of raising the minimum wage.
There’s evidence to support both approaches. The Congressional Budget Office, which provides legislators with non-partisan economic analysis, said that a pay floor would cost 500,000 jobs. By contrast, a report from the progressive Center for Economic and Policy Research found states that had raised their minimum wage had higher employment growth, on average, than those that hadn’t.
Though Ryan provides a welcome nod to the income inequality question that hurt his run with Romney, the purported empathy doesn’t exactly square with the Republican budget Ryan penned in April. It would cut $5 trillion in spending over a decade. The CBO estimated that over two-thirds of those cuts would come from programs that serve citizens with low or moderate incomes. Food stamps and college assistance would be hit, even as taxes on corporations and the wealthy would be reduced.
Ryan’s book may be a page-turner for Republicans and an ire-inducing slog for Democrats. Either way, it can’t be entirely ignored. Even if he doesn’t make it to the White House, Ryan is expected to take over as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, whence the nation’s tax proposals emerge. The role also would give him additional power to shape the GOP approach to economic growth, trade policy and Social Security and Medicare reform. In that sense, at least, it makes “The Way Forward” a must-read of sorts for political wonks in both parties.