It’s “Paul Ryan is a serious wonk” season again!

The Washington Post admires Paul Ryan's very bold plan to fight poverty by replacing food stamps with dreams

Topics: Paul Ryan, Poverty, Republican Party, Washington Post, Food Stamps, SNAP, conservative movement, Media Criticism, the poor, Editor's Picks,

It's "Paul Ryan is a serious wonk" season again!Paul Ryan (Credit: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

Wow, is it “Paul Ryan is a serious, brilliant, policy-focused wonk with a dynamic and inclusive vision for the future of the Republican Party” season again already? It comes earlier every year. Thanks, Washington Post, for this brilliant example of the genre.

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.

I guess it’s nice that Paul Ryan is going to help lead the Republicans away from those crazy Tea Partyers just one short year after Mitt Romney named him his running mate in part because, as the Times said at the time, “Ryan Brings the Tea Party to the Ticket.” So, what is the new focus?

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.

Oh, good, Paul Ryan is parachuting into “inner-city neighborhoods” to bring back compassionate conservatism. Tell us more about the sober, admirable seriousness of the endeavor that is Paul Ryan solves poverty.

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.”

Fun fact about Lyndon Johnson’s much-derided “War on Poverty”: It was working! From the enactment of the Great Society through 1970, “the portion of Americans living below the poverty line dropped from 22.2 percent to 12.6 percent.” That’s huge. There’s never been another comparable drop in the poverty rate. That might be, in part, because Republicans and neoliberal Democrats, beginning with Nixon, went on to dismantle most of Johnson’s original programs. They didn’t, though, roll back his expansion of Social Security, which became the most successful anti-poverty program in American history, lowering the poverty rate among the elderly from a shocking 28.5 percent in 1966 to 10.1 percent today. What kind of crazy program is Social Security, that it’s so successful? It’s a program that gives money to old people. That’s all! It taxes lots of people and then gives money to old people and then they’re not poor, or not as poor, anymore.

I can save Ryan’s staff some trouble, too. There are already existing conservative intellectual policy prescriptions for reducing poverty, and most of them amount to “give people money.” The Earned Income Tax Credit, the Ford and Reagan administrations’ alternative to the poverty-fighting programs of Johnson (and Roosevelt), gives poor people money. Even Ryan’s supposed philosophical idol, Friedrich Hayek, supported a universal basic income. For a while, conservatives seemed to understand that the main problem poor people face is that they don’t have enough money, and not that they lack the desire or incentive to make more money. Ryan, though, is an adherent of more modern conservative thinking on the subject, which says that poor people are the victims of government programs that help them buy food to feed themselves and their families.

“Paul wants people to dream again,” [Bishop Shirley] 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.

Haha, you don’t say. This may be because specific anti-poverty programs generally require spending money, and Ryan’s guiding philosophy is a fanatical opposition to the entire notion of the government redistributing money from the wealthy to the less-wealthy. But Ryan’s votes to slash food stamp spending will assuredly boost America’s gross national dreaming.

The entire 1,800+-word piece quotes exactly one person skeptical of Ryan’s ability or willingness to create an effective but acceptable-to-modern-conservatives anti-poverty program — Bruce Bartlett, an apostate Republican — and a half-dozen people deeply impressed with Ryan’s sincerity and brilliance. There are no actual academic or institutional poverty experts, representatives of major national anti-poverty organizations to be found. The upward-redistributionist effect of Ryan’s multitude of shady, vague budgets isn’t even addressed.

Most annoyingly, it’s just accepted, without much pushback, that Ryan is exactly what he’s shrewdly marketed himself as. He’s a wonk, he’s an ideas man, he’s reorienting the Republican Party toward real policy solutions to big problems, he’s just as at home drinking a Miller Lite in Kenosha as he is ministering to recovering addicts (or hanging with Reince Priebus). This is what Ryan is selling: An even harder-line version of the conservative policy agenda of the last 30+ years. There’s never, ever any there there in his proposals. And we’ve learned this from the last 600 “budgets” he’s released! Poor Ezra Klein has learned this lesson the hard way. Ryan may be very sincere in his sympathy for the poor and perhaps even convinced that he can come up with a better way to lift them from poverty than liberals, but there’s no coherent way in which slashing food stamps for millions and replacing those cuts with nothing — wait, sorry, I meant replacing the program with “dreams” and “spiritual redemption” — doesn’t have the immediate effect of making a lot of poor people’s lives harder and meaner.

It’s incomprehensible and inexcusable that this story is still being written about Ryan, in the nonpartisan elite political press, in very late 2013.

Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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