For the second time in two elections, an older Republican presidential nominee selected a younger running mate with the intent of injecting some energy into his campaign. Then, shortly afterward, his campaign staff began working to muzzle that younger running mate.
That’s about as close as you’ll get to putting Paul Ryan and Sarah Palin in the same sentence — although, like Palin, Ryan seems intent on using his boost in national profile to grab a big role in the national debate moving forward, likely to position himself for a future run at the top of the ticket.
I give Ryan better odds at staying in that conversation all the way until the next election than Palin did after 2008 (although she certainly remained relevant through the 2010 midterms and was a central figure in the tea party’s rise to prominence). If he does, it will be because he seems to have a keen understanding of one of the GOP’s key problems moving forward from the election he helped fight. I’m talking about its reputation as a party that only cares about wealthy Americans.
Ryan reportedly wanted to broaden the GOP’s message during the presidential campaign but was shot down by Romney campaign advisers who said the party does not “test well on” issues like poverty. Well, of course: It’s hard to “test well on” an issue you spend zero time addressing. The only concession he got from the campaign was to give a single speech, about two weeks before Election Day in Cleveland, that was well-received but was too little, too late to move the needle for the campaign.
Now that those advisers aren’t holding him back any longer, Ryan seems intent on spending some time developing this theme on his own. His speech last night to the Jack Kemp Foundation — named for another one-time creative thinker and vice presidential contender for the GOP — is worth a read in its entirety. But this is the key theme:
Just last year, total federal and state spending on means-tested programs came to more than one trillion dollars. What does that mean in practical terms? For that amount of money, you could give every poor American a check for $22,000. Instead, we spent all that money trying to fight poverty through government programs.
What do we have to show for it? Today, 46 million people are living in poverty. During the last four years, the number of people on food stamps has gone up by 15 million. Medicaid is reaching a breaking point. And one out of every four students fails to earn a high-school diploma. In our major cities, half of our kids don’t graduate. Half.
When Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty in 1964, he predicted we would eliminate poverty in 35 to 50 years. Here we are, 48 years later, and poverty is winning. We deserve better.
Ryan framed the issue in two ways that ought to be fertile political ground for Republicans: as the policy heir to the successful welfare reform of the 1990s, and with education as a centerpiece. Once upon a time, welfare reform was a prominent — and winning — social issue for conservatives. As I’ve argued before, education reform should be one for the right going forward (there are indications some Republicans understand this).
Importantly, Ryan does not frame the issue only as a matter of saving money. As I’ve also argued, Republicans will be more successful if they can talk about their ideas both as a matter of good fiscal stewardship and as a way to improve matters for beneficiaries of government programs. Welfare reform was undoubtedly good for both the nation’s finances and those who were moved off welfare rolls and onto payrolls. The GOP should make the case that the same is true for sensible changes to anti-poverty programs and education — as well as health-care programs, pensions, mass transit, etc.
Lest this post be viewed as a Paul Ryan love-fest, let me note that Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida (who also spoke to the Jack Kemp Foundation last night) and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal are two other likely 2016 contenders who are sounding similar notes.
The shame of the campaign Mitt Romney ran — aside from the fact he lost, of course — is that it didn’t do much to put conservative arguments and values in a better position moving forward. Perhaps Ryan can salvage some potential from the campaign on his own.
(H/t to the Future of Capitalism blog for pointing out the Ryan and Rubio speeches.)
– By Kyle Wingfield