When 1.3 million Americans lose their unemployment benefits on Saturday, they can thank Rep. Paul Ryan. He took the lead in negotiating a bipartisan budget deal with Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, and on behalf of his party, held the line against continuing extended unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless.
Sure, a lot of Republicans share blame with Ryan. But he deserves extra-special (negative) credit for the deal, because he has lately had the audacity to depict himself as the new face of “compassionate conservatism,” insisting Republicans must pay attention to the problems of the poor. Friends say the man who once worshipped Ayn Rand now takes Pope Francis as his moral role model. Except he can’t help treating his new role model with arrogance and contempt.
It’s true that while knuckle-draggers like Rush Limbaugh attack the pope as a Marxist, Ryan has praised him, which I guess takes a tiny bit of courage since normally Republicans don’t like to buck the leader of their party. “What I love about the pope is he is triggering the exact kind of dialogue we ought to be having,” Ryan told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “People need to get involved in their communities to make a difference, to fix problems soul to soul.”
But he couldn’t suppress either his right-wing politics or his supreme capacity for condescension for very long. “The guy is from Argentina, they haven’t had real capitalism in Argentina,” Ryan said (referring to the pope as “the guy” is a nice folksy touch.) “They have crony capitalism in Argentina. They don’t have a true free enterprise system.”
Beltway journalists would have us believe Ryan’s love for the guy from Argentina is triggering genuine new interest in helping the poor. “My bet is that he’s on Pope Francis’ team,” a former Romney-Ryan advisor told BuzzFeed’s McKay Coppins, for a worshipful Ryan profile headlined “Paul Ryan finds God.”
I admit, I have been immune to Ryan’s various efforts to brand himself as a bright and innovative Republican over the years – and I continue to be. Let’s recall: The guy who impressed Ezra Klein as a serious albeit deficit-obsessed budget wonk turned out to be terrible at math – his heralded “Roadmap,” the Ryan budget, busted out the deficit for years and didn’t balance the budget until 2040, thanks to its generous tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations.
Now we’re supposed to believe Ryan is going to deliver an anti-poverty agenda as soon as the spring. “This is my next ‘Roadmap,’” Ryan told an aide, according to Coppins. “I want to figure out a way for conservatives to come up with solutions to poverty. I have to do this.”
Excuse me if I remain a skeptic. Ryan’s prescription for the poor is, and always has been, a dose of discipline. Even in 2010, with unemployment in his own district hovering around 12 percent, he voted against extending unemployment benefits on the grounds that they’d increase the deficit – and then reversed himself when they were coupled with an extension of Bush tax cuts, which of course added far more to the deficit than extended benefits.
Ryan has always defended his stinginess on safety net issues as tough love for the poor, giving them “incentives” to take a job, any job, to support their families.
“We have an incentive-based system where people want to get up and make the most of their lives, for themselves and their kids,” he says. “We don’t want to turn this safety net into a hammock that ends up lulling people in their lives into dependency and complacency. That’s the big debate we’re having right now.”
I don't think Pope Francis would call our threadbare safety net a hammock.
Today, Ryan's guide on the road to a GOP poverty agenda is the same man who has guided generations of Republicans into political self-congratulation and little else: Bob Woodson, a conservative proponent of what used to be touted as “black capitalism.” Now 75, Woodson runs the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, and he helped inspire the dead-end “enterprise zone” movement beloved by some Republicans back in the 1980s and ’90s. Enterprise zones, which lowered taxes and created other incentives for businesses to invest and hire in low-income neighborhoods, were championed by the late Rep. Jack Kemp, who is one of Ryan’s political mentors. They have repeatedly been found to have “negligible” effects on employment, earnings and business creation in urban neighborhoods.
But Woodson apparently finds Ryan a one-man enterprise zone for restoring his national profile. (He last made headlines for attacking African-American Democrats at the GOP’s 50th anniversary of the March on Washington commemoration, insisting they let black issues languish while gays and immigrants became priorities.) Woodson is the star of Coppins’s Ryan piece, vouching for the Republican’s “authenticity” on poverty issues.
“The criminal lifestyle makes you very discerning, and everywhere I’ve taken Paul, these very discerning people have given me a thumbs up,” Woodson told Coppins. “You can’t lip synch authenticity around people like that.”
But when asked what Ryan has done tangibly for the poor, the Republican came up with one word: neckties. Apparently, according to Woodson, Ryan sent neckties to a classroom of teenagers after one admired his while he was visiting. So where conservatives used to preach that the poor should lift themselves up by their bootstraps, their new anti-poverty agenda involves neckties.
In the spirit of the holiday season, I have to admit there’s something a little bit touching about Ryan’s insistence that the GOP needs an anti-poverty agenda. Honestly, Jack Kemp would be a welcome addition to the modern Republican Party, which prefers to demonize the poor rather than empathize.
But forgive me if I can’t entirely believe in Paul Ryan’s “authenticity” on these issues. A guy so prideful that he thinks he can lecture the pope about capitalism doesn’t strike me as capable of the humility required to rethink his political beliefs. I have no doubt Pope Francis would support extended unemployment benefits, and a host of other policies to make life easier for poor people and help them find genuine opportunity. I don't think he'd be satisfied with sending them neckties.