If I had to draw one conclusion from McKay Coppins' latest Paul Ryan bildungsroman in Buzzfeed, it would be that Ryan wants public documentation of his metamorphosis from tough-love austerian into a tribune for the poor. But that he doesn't want it captured in the context of everything else he's done for his entire career.
We see penitence, and regret, and a yearning for reconciliation.
“We have to be cognizant of how people hear things,” he says. “For instance, when I think of ‘inner city,’ I think of everyone. I don’t just think of one race. It doesn’t even occur to me that it could come across as a racial statement, but that’s not the case, apparently… What I learned is that there’s a whole language and history that people are very sensitive to, understandably so. We just have to better understand. You know, we’ll be a little clumsy, but it’s with the right intentions behind it.”
“I think that by the time it got around to 2012, it was a little too late,” he says. “It wasn’t, ‘Oh gosh, four months to go, let’s get this right now!’ It’s not a box-checker at the end of a campaign. It’s a consistent and continual thing. It just atrophied in our party. And I was part of that atrophy. I focused on budgets and economics, macroeconomic policy, because that was sort of the crisis in front of us.” “I think we all, as a party, just fell away from that.”
This degree of pathos would be impressive if it weren't undermined by its own political savvy. Mentioned as an aside in the piece is the fact that Ryan has scheduled a Budget Committee hearing on poverty this week—which is itself a prelude to the long-hyped unveiling of a meatier anti-poverty agenda. One gets the impression that Ryan timed Coppins' access to coincide with his own political stagecraft.
And that'd be all for the best if Ryan plans to surprise everyone later this year with new prescriptions that serve as an implicit rebuke of everything he's done in his career up until literally days before the Buzzfeed article went live. House Republicans passed his budget on April 10. It proposes monumental cuts to social programs for the poor.
But most of that context is invisible in the profile, as is any indication that Ryan's actually changed his thinking about how to reduce poverty. And it's thus silent on the basic question of whether Ryan's serious at all, or playing us for fools.
If Ryan really intends to undertake a transformation, and not just pretend to, it would be an amazing development, but a very odd one.
Ryan's spent the last three years doing an excellent job baking his vision for the country into the Republican party's official policy agenda. His budgets (which reflect House GOP consensus) mirror his "Roadmaps" (the grandiose fiscal bills he used to introduce as an individual member) to a remarkable degree. And they are all unambiguously devastating for the poor.
Reducing health, education, nutrition, and other income support for poor communities has always been one of Ryan's two chief fixations—the other being cutting the top federal income tax rate by more than a third. The sums of money at stake are enormous. A year ago, he admitted that he and Mitt Romney would have tried to turn his budget into law. It would have changed the character of the country.
Any meaningful departure from such lofty ambitions will require acknowledging that the poverty policies he's been fighting for were wrongheaded all along. Far too punitive. And that in turn will require him to revise the rest of his budget—because cuts to poverty programs do the lion's share of its fiscal consolidation. He'll be acknowledging implicitly that the platform upon which he ran for vice president, and which his entire party supported, was in equal measure infeasible and undesirable. That the Republican party should be offering a vision for the country that's much less distinct from the Democratic vision than the one they've been promoting for decades.
I haven't gone on the road with Ryan, but I still think it's highly unlikely he will do that. Coppins' profile is a fun read but contains no information that should make you think otherwise.