The rise and future role of Paul Ryan

October 31, 2012

Regardless of the outcome of this year’s presidential election, Mitt Romney has greatly elevated the stature and the reach of Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee and this year’s GOP vice presidential nominee. And though the presidential election is extremely close — indeed, though Barack Obama may well have the upper hand — one can’t help but speculate about the role Ryan would play in a Romney White House, and in the larger conservative movement.

For much of his tenure in Congress, Ryan has devoted himself to crafting ambitious policy initiatives that barely saw the light of day. During the Bush administration, the young Wisconsin congressman pressed for an overhaul of Medicare that would create a prescription drug benefit while also implementing a system designed to contain cost growth. In the end, crucial portions were abandoned due to opposition from gun-shy congressional Republicans as well as congressional Democrats. Ryan was also one of the most enthusiastic champions of revamping Social Security by introducing voluntary personal accounts, an effort that arguably boomeranged by contributing to the dramatic Democratic comeback in the 2006 congressional elections.

The boomerang kept going; it was President Obama’s health reform effort that gave Ryan a new lease on life. Together with Senator Tom Coburn and a handful of other conservative allies, he offered a right-of-center proposal for coverage expansion. Though Ryan’s plan wasn’t embraced by most members of the Republican caucus, it established him as a thought leader on the right. After Republicans won the House in 2010, Speaker John Boehner named Ryan chairman of the House Budget Committee, a role he used to great effect. Rather than stick to setting broad goals and priorities, Ryan devised a budget proposal that set the agenda for conservatives for years to come on entitlement reform. At the time, many of them saw Ryan’s call for a market-oriented overhaul of Medicare as politically suicidal. And indeed, President Obama waged war on Ryan’s proposal, devoting an entire speech in April 2011 to attacking it. The president went so far as to characterize Ryan’s agenda as “thinly veiled Social Darwinism.”

But one of the more striking aspects of Ryan’s career has been his frequent though largely unheralded efforts to reconcile his free market ideals with the demands of social justice. Back in 2011 the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops offered sharp criticisms of the Fiscal Year 2012 budget resolution passed by House Republicans. Though many conservatives dismissed the criticisms as entirely predictable, Ryan sent an open letter to Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, the president of the Conference, which made the case that the budget resolution is very much in keeping with Catholic social teaching, arguing that “human dignity is undermined when citizens become passive clients living on redistributions from government bureaucracies.” To make his case against enervating bureaucracies, Ryan cited the words of no less an authority than Pope John Paul the Great, who warned against “the loss of human energies” and the “inordinate increase of public agencies” that had accompanied the rise of the “social assistance state.” Far from undermining the social safety net for America’s most vulnerable citizens, Ryan argued that his approach would strengthen it by placing it on a sound fiscal footing. Suffice it to say, Ryan’s intervention didn’t satisfy all or even many of his critics among Catholic social thinkers, but it represented a sincere and respectful effort at starting a dialogue.

In a similar vein, Ryan reached out to Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), one of the most well-regarded liberals in Congress, to craft a Medicare reform proposal that could pass muster with at least some Democrats. Though Ryan and Wyden disagreed passionately about the wisdom of Obama’s health reform — Ryan was strongly opposed and Wyden strongly in favor — they came together on a plan that aimed to contain cost growth in Medicare through the use of market competition. In deciding to work with Wyden, Ryan abandoned his original proposal for Medicare reform, which envisioned phasing out a Medicare public option. Ryan also agreed to a higher growth target, a concession that meant that he would have to find savings elsewhere in the federal budget. Many Democrats, meanwhile, were sharply critical of Wyden for having cooperated with Ryan, despite the fact that Wyden had made it clear he opposed a Medicare overhaul that also entailed repealing the Affordable Care Act. Ryan’s cooperation with Wyden did not usher in an era of bipartisan comity. It did, however, represent a willingness to make significant concessions in service to the larger cause of creating a more sustainable social safety net.

Last week, Ryan gave a speech at Cleveland State University that offers a vivid illustration of the kind of role he might play as vice president. While the Romney campaign has focused somewhat narrowly on job creation, for the obvious reason that the U.S. remains mired in high unemployment, Ryan’s speech was about upward mobility. As in his dialogue with Dolan, Ryan made the case against “centralized, bureaucratic, top-down anti-poverty programs,” which he accused of perpetuating a “debilitating culture of dependency.” In their place he called for a more decentralized, community-centered approach aimed at encouraging self-reliance. More broadly, he called for a restoration of civil society. To Ryan, the expansion of centralized government bureaucracies has threatened the balance between the state on the one hand and families, neighborhoods, religious organizations and other voluntary groups on the other. It is this “vast middle ground between the government and the individual” where characters are formed and the habits of self-governance are learned, according to Ryan, and so its erosion is a much deeper threat than is commonly understood.

Throughout Ryan’s Cleveland State speech, he made reference to the women and men who had devoted their lives to bettering the lives of the very poor. As vice president, Ryan would be uniquely positioned to champion their cause, and to think broadly and deeply about how to strengthen civil society in the wake of family dissolution.

In November of last year, the House Budget Committee staff, under Ryan’s direction, issued a fascinating report on income inequality, which, among other things, observed that while the federal income tax had grown more progressive in recent years, federal transfer payments had grown less so because of growing entitlement payments to well-off seniors. The report also made brief reference to higher education and the role technological innovation might play in making it more accessible, an area in which a committed presidential administration could make a significant difference. Just as Al Gore’s vice presidency was devoted to reinventing government and Dick Cheney’s vice presidency was focused on the war on terrorism, one can imagine a Ryan vice presidency centered on the cause of expanding economic opportunity. Given the caricature of Ryan and Romney as heartless Social Darwinists, there could be no better way to play against type — and no better way to draw on Ryan’s deepest intellectual commitments. The ideal partner for this enterprise would be the Italian-born economist Luigi Zingales, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and the author of A Capitalism for the People. More than almost anyone else, Zingales has informed Ryan’s thinking about financial reform, broadening access to education, and addressing the market failures that have exacerbated inequality and poverty.

If the Romney-Ryan ticket is defeated, one hopes that other Republicans will dedicate themselves to talking about, thinking about and devising policies centered on expanding economic opportunity. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) has demonstrated a keen interest in the subject, and he would be well-placed to take up the cause. Governor Chris Christie (R-NJ) also has a knack for talking about issues like urban poverty and mass incarceration in a smart and accessible way. On the surface, Romney’s defeat would clearly be a setback for conservatives, but since Paul Ryan’s prominence will continue either way, who knows where the boomerang will go next?

PHOTO: U.S. Republican vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) attends a campaign rally in Daytona Beach, Florida, October 19, 2012. REUTERS/Jim Young


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Does Paul Ryan support the stimulus, or oppose it?

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

You must be speaking of a different Paul Ryan from the one that we all know and love for his level-headed economic ideas and compassion for those he rules (sorry, serves).

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

How about a little “reality check” on Batman and Robin, that daring duo that has all the answers.  /27/sensata-plant-illinois-jobs

Headline and some excerpts from article:

Sensata outsourcing rattles Illinois community: ‘Jobs need to stay here’

Workers residents have held protests to prevent vehicles shipping parts destined for China from Bain-owned company

Workers, ex-workers and local residents have set up an encampment outside the gate. They have held protests, tried to deliver petitions and sought to prevent vehicles shipping out plant parts destined for China from leaving the site.

Because Sensata is majority owned by Bain Capital – the controversial former company run by Republican challenger Mitt Romney – the camp has been dubbed Bainport.

So far there have been more than 20 arrests, including this week veteran civil rights activist Reverend Jesse Jackson.

Romney still owns stock in Sensata and thus has benefited financially from cost-cutting in Freeport even as the Republican candidate has made a point of lambasting China and outsourcing jobs a key part of his election pitch.


Question for Reuters: Why aren’t you running this story instead of a UK news source? How about some honesty in journalism instead of simply running campaign ads?

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

The problem with decentralization and being community-based is the lack of standards and accountability. Federal funds will be wasted on make-work, feather-bedding, payroll-padding, and scandals will inevitably emerge. Inevitably creating calls for a crackdown, a single standard comparable across the board, etc. Then when that inevitably fails, we’ll hear calls for decentralization again. The cycle begins, and everyone in each stage acts like it has never happened before.

There is NO solution to the problem of welfare and dependency, because a core portion of the dependent are innately unintelligent, lazy, selfish, impulsive, prone to substance abuse, etc. – much of that genetic. The best thing you can do is to keep the reproduction of that element down as much as possible.

We should mandate that those who are unwilling or unable to care for themselves have to go on lasting and ongoing contraceptives. When they get on their feet they are of course free to get themselves off those solutions, but we should make contraception a condition of welfare. Those who want to make welfare a lifelong lifestyle would then at least not be continuing it for another generation. The proportion of our population that is prone to such outcomes would decrease sharply.

Posted by Carney3 | Report as abusive

So….. Does Paul Ryan support the stimulus, or oppose it?

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

@ Carney3 —

Why waste all that money on those who cannot be weaned from welfare and dependency?

Why not go straight to the “final solution” as Nazi Germany did?

We should also include, not only those on welfare since that is only the tip of the iceberg, but anyone who cannot contribute to society by working.

For example, as you pointed out anyone with a genetic disease that uses up excess medical care should be included, especially children with genetically inherited diseases that offer no positive prognosis, disabled people, those in prison (since they have shown they cannot function in society), those in mental hospitals, those whose IQ is below the norm, and of course we need to begin “selective breeding” to improve the race.

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

@ Carney3;
Are you a descendant of Adolf Hitler ?
You sure sound like one…

Posted by EthicsIntl | Report as abusive

@ Carney3 —

I was merely pointing out the logical inconsistencies in your argument that some people are genetically inferior.

Actually, your argument sounds a lot more like Adolph Hitler’s than mine.

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive