Anti-poverty talk from conservative Paul Ryan?

Are Republican leaders starting to sound like Democrats?
Huh? Paul Ryan is talking about repairing the safety net?

Quick quiz: Which potential 2016 presidential candidate had this to say about federal anti-poverty programs last week?

"What do we want? A healthy economy — and a big part of that is having a strong safety net, both for those who can't help themselves and for those who just need a helping hand. … I want to talk about how we can repair the safety net and help families get ahead."

If you guessed Hillary Clinton or another Democrat, guess again. The correct answer is Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the conservative champion who was Mitt Romney's running mate in 2012.

Yes, this is the same Paul Ryan who once warned that the federal safety net was becoming "a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency," blamed poverty on "a tailspin of culture in our inner cities," and proposed cutting Food Stamps by almost 20% over 10 years.

But last week, Ryan unveiled a 73-page domestic policy plan that broke with Republican orthodoxy on several counts — mainly by affirming that the federal government has an obligation to fund programs to help poor people and that sometimes that will mean spending more money, not less.

Ryan proposed bundling federal spending on poverty programs into what were once called "block grants" to states, to allow them to experiment with new approaches to helping the poor — but at current spending levels, without the cuts he demanded only a few months ago.

And he endorsed a proposal from President Obama (a daring move for anyone in the GOP) to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit for people without children. That would increase federal spending on the tax rebate for low-income earners, a program some tea party conservatives loathe.

It isn't that Ryan has abandoned his previous views entirely, but he's changed his focus from merely trying to shrink the federal government to making existing federal programs work better, too.

Even some Democrats were impressed. "I was blown away," said Isabel V. Sawhill, a former Clinton administration official who studies anti-poverty programs at the Brookings Institution. "It's a big step for him to move away from budget cutting and toward something more positive. He's pulling the Republican Party back toward the middle.... I like a lot of what I saw."

And Ryan's not alone. His proposals are part of a broader search among Republicans for post-tea party policies that might appeal to more voters than the austere small-government platform that helped them lose the presidential election of 2012.

"The Romney-Ryan ticket lost because it was perceived as not caring about people," argued Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, one of a loose group of conservative scholars in Washington who have been dubbed "Reform Republicans."

"We need to find a way to speak the language of compassion," he said. "There's a streak in the Republican Party that says the way to help people is primarily by empowering the private sector, but Ryan's saying that's not enough. That's a conceptual breakthrough for the modern Republican Party."

Not surprisingly, Democrats are reacting with well-honed skepticism.

"Watch what they do, not what they say," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the top-ranking Democrat on Ryan's House Budget Committee. He dismissed Ryan's proposal to send anti-poverty money to the states as "nothing more than a block grant" — a device Republicans have used to try to cut spending in the past — "gussied up with some bells and whistles."

But Ryan insisted that, while he still wants to cut overall spending, that's not the purpose of his proposal. "This is not a budget-cutting exercise," he said in his paper.

Other Democrats objected to a Ryan proposal that poor people sign contracts with "opportunity goals" — finding a job, getting an education — that they must meet or lose their public aid. That may not work in an economy that's still struggling to provide jobs for the unemployed, they argued.

But ultimately, Ryan's ideas — and those of other Republican reformers — may face their toughest audience inside the GOP. "There are Republicans who are afraid of cutting a deal like this," noted Ron Haskins, another scholar at the Brookings Institution (and a former aide to President George W. Bush). "They'll get attacked in primaries for supporting government spending on the poor."

Whether or not Ryan's proposals get traction, a shift in the party's focus (or at least in its rhetoric) is starting to feel inevitable. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), for example, said last week that he's in favor of more federal help for single mothers and working class families, including easier loan repayment rates for recent college graduates. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told the Urban League last week that he wants changes in the criminal justice system, including sentencing reform to reduce racial inequities.

GOP politicians are no longer simply competing over who's more zealous about cutting spending and repealing Obamacare; they're actually talking about ideas for innovation.

So, whether he runs for president or not, Paul Ryan just made the 2016 GOP presidential race more interesting — and more substantive.


Twitter: @DoyleMcManus

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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