Even before he became chairman of the House Budget Committee, Paul Ryan was a one-man think tank, churning out libertarian-style reforms of Social Security and Medicare, the income-tax code and discretionary spending. An inspiration to Republicans, his legendary policy prowess prompted Mitt Romney to pick Mr. Ryan as his running mate in 2012. Likewise, many conservatives consider the Wisconsin whiz kid the GOP’s great hope, thinking that his intellectual leadership demonstrates that Republicans could govern effectively if they take the White House in 2016.
Mr. Ryan’s exalted status was on full display last month when he released his latest proposal, a wide-ranging overhaul of the nation’s public-welfare system. Expanding Opportunity in America would not only consolidate the cornucopia of means-tested assistance programs, but also implement criminal justice and education reforms to facilitate greater economic mobility among America’s underclass.
Growing out of his “poverty tour,” Mr. Ryan’s initiative has received glowing media attention, save from left-wing columnists who viscerally oppose letting states experiment with innovative anti-poverty strategies. Influential “reform conservatives” have been especially giddy over Mr. Ryan’s softer — or, per George W. Bush’s forgotten 2000 campaign theme, “compassionate” — conservatism, which they hope debunks the patently false notion that only Democrats have a heart.
However, there is a problem with Mr. Ryan’s newfound preoccupation with the 15 percent of the population classified as poor by the government, when viewed in tandem with his budget blueprints. While his welfare reforms leave bloated public-welfare expenditures at record levels, Mr. Ryan’s Path to Prosperity fiddles with Medicare — an earned-benefit program popular with voting seniors — while offering tax-cut windfalls that mostly benefit the top quintile of the income distribution. This raises the question: What does the GOP visionary have to offer the remaining two-thirds of the population, whose economic prospects have fallen far more dramatically than the poor’s over the past 25 years?
The Ryan vision seems like a Republican counterpart to the Democratic “upstairs-downstairs” strategy as described by Bush-41 veteran Lloyd Green: pamper both rich and poor, but hang middle-income voters out to dry. To be sure, the reformist conservatives would argue that a compassionate governing agenda is indispensable to GOP electoral prospects. Yet they fail to ask, “Compassionate toward whom?” The road to the White House will not be paved by promising minorities block grants and school choice. Rather, it runs via the great center-right coalition that enabled Eisenhower, Nixon and Reagan to decisively win the presidency, each twice.
That dominant GOP coalition did not break apart because impoverished Americans opted out, but because — starting under “the kindler and gentler” George H.W. Bush — working-class Democrats who had voted for Ike, Dick and the Gipper no longer saw Republicans as their champions. Those lower-middle voters broke for Bill Clinton and Ross Perot in 1992, and they have never returned. The party has since failed to carry once-GOP-reliable states such as California, Illinois, New Jersey and Connecticut.
Similarly, the Romney-Ryan ticket went down not for failure to emote concern for the poor, but because it offered nothing to the middle class. In contrast, Reagan’s agenda focused on reviving a high-wage economy that delivered tangibles for working- and middle-class Americans. He understood that rising out of poverty is most effectively facilitated indirectly, as “a rising tide lifts all boats,” in the words of JFK. Or as Theodore Roosevelt observed: “If the farmer and wage-worker are well off, it is absolutely certain that all others will be well off, too.”
Mr. Ryan needs to conduct a “working-class tour” of the Rust Belt to experience the angst reflected in the songs of Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen. Both popular musicians are liberal Democrats, yet Mr. Joel’s “Allentown” and Mr. Springsteen’s “My Hometown” profoundly capture the devastation of Middle America by the willful globalization of the U.S. economy by policy elites in cahoots with Wall Street investment banks and multinational corporations.
Such a tour would force Republicans to respond to, as did Reagan, the elephant in the room: the foreign competitors and state-owned enterprises who have been rigging the game at every opportunity, especially with currency. It would also acknowledge how open borders, guest-worker permits and free-trade agreements have killed millions of American jobs while squeezing wages and benefits. Then maybe more GOP leaders will step up to the plate to boldly defend American workers, jobs and manufacturing, as Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama did.
Defending the heartland against foreign predators means more than holding the 2016 party convention in Cleveland. It requires developing effective policies that invest in domestic manufacturing and energy production, measures that would create millions of high family-wage jobs for fathers without college degrees — not more professional social-welfare caseworkers or boosts in the low-wage-enabling Earned Income Tax Credit per the Ryan plan. It means forgoing supply-side tax cuts and fomenting a demand-side revolution with big transportation-infrastructure, defense-related and medical-cures projects designed to renew American independence, strength and promise.
If Mr. Ryan would direct his prodigious energy and intellect toward a nation-building agenda that re-engineers the economy to serve the broad working middle class once again, he’d find a lot fewer Americans living in the margins — and millions more Americans voting Republican.
Robert W. Patterson served as a senior speechwriter at the U.S. Small Business Administration and at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in the George W. Bush administration.