Paul Ryan's sick new poverty lie: Catch him selling another phony line

After six months of listening tours, it's time the media demands something else from Ryan: An anti-poverty agenda

Published April 30, 2014 11:43AM (EDT)

Paul Ryan                       (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
Paul Ryan (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

BuzzFeed reporter McKay Coppins has written a long and eminently readable piece on Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican champion of the poor and downtrodden. It follows Ryan the Catholic as he clumsily reaches out to non-Catholic faith-based groups combating poverty, describes his partnership with conservative activist Bob Woodson, and makes a big hullabaloo over how kooky it is that wonky conservative budget wonk Paul Ryan now cares about the poor.

Coppins’ article, published ahead of Ryan’s Budget Committee hearing on the war on poverty, is actually the second long-read Coppins has put together on Paul Ryan’s spiritual quest to find conservative solutions to poverty. His first one, from last December, features the same themes and the same sorts of anecdotes.

“Until recently, Paul Ryan would have seemed like an improbable pick to lead the restoration of compassionate conservatism with a heartfelt mission to the poor,” Coppins wrote in December. “His political transformation — from right-wing warrior-wonk crusading against the welfare state, to bleeding-heart conservative consumed with a mission to the poor — is one of the most peculiar, and potentially consequential, stories in politics today,” Coppins wrote on Monday. “I’m Catholic, but I’m cool with that,” Coppins’ December piece quoted Ryan saying during an awkward encounter with a minister. “I’m so goofy with that stuff. It’s just not my thing. I’m Catholic!” Coppins’ Monday piece quoted Ryan saying after singing awkwardly during a Baptist service.

They’re both interesting pieces in that they track a nationally prominent politician’s nitty-gritty attempts at a political reinvention. But they also reflect the degree to which Ryan has already pulled off a public relations coup: He has reporters writing article after article about “Paul Ryan, enemy of poverty,” despite having done nothing in his capacity as a legislator to combat poverty.

This talk of Paul Ryan’s compassion for the poor got started with a Washington Post article from last November, which reported that Ryan “has been quietly visiting inner-city neighborhoods” and was “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.” The Post reported at the time that Ryan hoped “to roll out an anti-poverty plan to rival his budgetary Roadmap for America’s Future in scope and ambition.”

Here we are six months later and Ryan is still doing the listening tours, but his anti-poverty agenda is nowhere to be found. Ordinarily you’d expect reporters to start asking for a little steak after half a year’s worth of sizzle, but this is Paul Ryan we’re talking about. Reporters love to love Paul Ryan because he challenges the popular notion of what a Republican should be while at the same time adhering strictly – you might even say fanatically – to party dogma.

Ryan’s budget proposals are the best examples of that adherence to hard-line conservative economic principles. And since Ryan refuses to spell out his poverty agenda, the budget will have to stand in as the best gauge of his commitment to helping the poor. Jonathan Chait, who wrote a fine response to Coppins after being name-checked as a Ryan hater in the article, observed that there is “a massive gulf between Ryan’s rhetoric and his policy agenda.” Ryan wants to boost military spending, cut taxes on the wealthy, and balance the budget without a single cent of additional revenue. As Chait notes, the only way to make that arithmetic (sort of) work is with “staggeringly large cuts to income support for the most vulnerable.”

Coppins, for his part, seems eager to buy what Ryan is selling. In early March, the Washington Post’s Robert Costa reported that Ryan’s anti-poverty policies would be part of his FY 2015 budget proposal. According to Coppins, “Ryan says the Post story was actually just inaccurate, and that he had never planned to fold his work on poverty into this year’s budget.” Coppins quotes Ryan saying that his budget work and his poverty crusading were never intended to mix: “I can’t speak for everybody and put my stuff in their budget. My work on poverty is a separate thing.”

But back in March, after Ryan released a report attacking anti-poverty programs established during the Johnson administration, Ryan told Costa that, yes, his poverty work and his budget proposal were all part of the same push:

“This document is a precursor not only of our budget but of our larger project to introduce poverty reforms over the course of this year,” Ryan said. “The president may focus on inequality because he can’t talk about growth. We’re focused on upward mobility, speaking directly to people who have fallen through the cracks.”

So Ryan either lied to Costa back then, or he’s lying to Coppins now. Safe money's on Ryan lying to Coppins -- if Ryan's Budget Committee work is a "separate thing" from his poverty work with Bob Woodson, then why is Ryan holding a Budget Committee hearing on the war on poverty featuring testimony from Bob Woodson? Regardless, we still have no firm idea how Paul Ryan, celebrated enemy of poverty, intends to fight poverty. Perhaps it’s possible that he’ll give us a preview at this morning’s hearing, but it doesn’t seem likely – the focus is more on what’s wrong with existing government anti-poverty programs. Woodson told Slate’s Dave Weigel that he expects some proposals to emerge this summer, though even he doesn’t sound sure. “It has to be done this year, because of the anniversary of the War on Poverty. And I do think there will be some specific, concrete anti-poverty proposals put on the table.”

And honestly, at this point Ryan has no political incentive to rush out the agenda he keeps promising, given that reporters are already casting him as a conservative poverty warrior on a mission from God.

By Simon Maloy

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