As readers of this site can testify, I have long been a big fan of Paul Ryan (R-WI), especially his heroic struggles to reform entitlements. He is plenty smart, photogenic, and the embodiment of an upbeat, optimistic and happy conservative warrior, just like his mentor Jack Kemp, another one of my heroes. I also have a soft spot for people from Wisconsin, having had the good sense to marry one. If there is any member of the House GOP caucus who knows more about the federal budget and fiscal condition, I have not found one.
Yet, one may be forgiven for wondering, what is Paul Ryan’s game plan? He recently negotiated away the automatic sequester cuts, one of the few real accomplishments of the House Republicans. And just last week he voted for the Farm Bill, which included hardly any of the fiscal reforms he sought previously. He had actually demanded ten times as much in cuts as was included in the legislation, an unholy amalgam of Republican farm subsidies and excessive Democratic food stamp spending. Truth be told, the former is more indefensible than the latter since the farm bill subsidizes Americans with an average income exceeding $100,000 per year.
Ryan has also been playing with fire on immigration, admittedly a more complicated issue, although he seems to be throttling back a bit as evidenced by his recent appearance on a Sunday talk show. He is holding to a rigorous “enforcement first” stand in contrast with President Obama’s iffy stance on upholding the law generally.
Among the interpretations of Paul Ryan’s actions of late is that a) he is running for president, b) running for Speaker of the House, c) running for re-election in Wisconsin, an agricultural state, or d) is currying favor with GOP Brahmins who are letting him move from the Budget Committee to Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.
Let’s take the easy one first. Ryan has long viewed, correctly, immigrants and immigration as a net gain for the nation and its economy. In this, he is very much in the Kemp and Wall Street Journal camps. He has, as do many, tried to finesse the amnesty issue through various alternative formulations which is tricky business as demonstrated by Senator Rubio’s past difficulties on this issue. Paul Ryan’s stance, like Rubio’s, is deeply held and honestly argued. It is something he has stood for and believed for a long time and is part and parcel with his growth-oriented economic policy generally. There is nothing “political” or self-seeking in this. In fact, agree or disagree with him, he is pursuing a principled line on this matter. While probably a net positive, say, in a general presidential election, it would be more problematic in a GOP primary.
One cannot discount, completely, a presidential run, although his recent actions to date, on sequestration at least, could also complicate matters in a GOP primary. Given the revolt of the appropriations subcommittee chairs, and the insistence of the Speaker on a budget deal, his deep-sixing of the automatic sequestration cuts points to a concern with maintaining his standing in the House GOP caucus. To his credit, he did not trash those members who voted against it as did the Speaker. Giving Ryan the benefit of the doubt, he made a prudential decision to put the budget to bed, avoid controversy in an election year, and live to fight another day. What hill do you want to die on?
Not the Farm Bill hill either, I gather. Again, it seems the Republican Establishment is beholden to agriculture, which is unfortunate but nevertheless true.
So what is a conservative reformer going to do? Live to fight another day, maybe. As a pro-growth disciple of Jack Kemp and, presumably, Arthur Laffer, Paul Ryan is likely betting that there is more to be gained by him assuming the chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee where he can effectuate corporate and political tax reform to spur economic growth. Such dynamism has been clearly absent during this sluggish recovery from the Great Recession. The same can be said if he plans on seeking the House Speaker’s job. The goal is to maintain spending restraint, where possible, while putting all your chips on growth. This certainly worked for Ronald Reagan and, for a short time, for George W. Bush.
The harsh reality is that Republican congressman like to spend money on farmers, defense contractors, marginal military bases in their districts, and various and sundry corporate subsidies. The GOP takeover of the House did not reform human nature on either side of the aisle it seems. So Ryan is betting on the win-win of economic growth. In rejecting the so-called “root canal” variety of fiscal conservatism, he is adhering to a standard Republican playbook.
Anyway, that is the best I can do by way of an apologia for Chairman Ryan right now. We should cut him some slack. But I must say that the old supply-side tactic of “all gain and no pain” is a bit anachronistic, even futile in an era of runaway entitlements, dysfunctional families, underemployment, and an aging population. We must hope that Ryan can couple his plans for entitlement reform with tax reform to accelerate growth in a country that badly needs both.
Paul Ryan for Speaker? Sign me up. There is nobody smarter or more astute politically in the GOP. We need him more than he needs us.