Paul Ryan is a lawmaker that people love to hate. He's got that Midwestern good-boy affect. He's into P90x and has a body that power squatters loathe. He reportedly had his interns read books by the cartoonish hater of altruism and "moochers," Ayn Rand. He is slick and attractive — and to his enemies, he is all the more repellant for that.
But with his latest, tentative attempt at defining an anti-poverty agenda for the right and his party, he has revealed himself to be what earnest commentators have always wanted: A politician who listens to them. One gets the impression that Ryan's anti-poverty program is a blog post, awaiting comment before revision. "[T]his paper is not meant to serve as the final word, but to start a conversation all across the country," he writes.
Ryan's plan mostly changes the Earned Income Tax Credit, expanding it for those who are childless (a move likely to help the childless to form families), and making it more progressive and generous generally. The plan "pays" for this expansion by cutting forms of corporate welfare and other rent-seeking programs.
Ryan also suggests ways of reducing sentences for federal crimes, and wants to encourage states to re-evaluate their sentencing guidelines and occupational licensing regimes. This is mostly beyond the federal government's scope to change, but it's welcome thinking.
Along with block-granting federal funding of anti-poverty programs, which would encourage the states to experiment with those funds, probably the most controversial part of Ryan's plan is its paternalism. Ryan and his defenders view caseworkers and social commitment as an essential part of helping those in poverty rise into economic independence. Critics say that caseworkers are a barrier to progress, forcing those in need to jump through hoops to get the monetary assistance they deserve.
What's nice about the plan is that it is both more politic and more compassionate than Ryan's previous "budget" plans. Like the unfortunately abandoned tax plan by Rep. Dave Camp, it seems to understand that the Republican Party is no longer just the party of Nantucket-red-wearing estate lawyers.
Ryan's plan has attracted cautiously positive comments from liberals like my colleague Ryan Cooper and Ezra Klein. Even Jonathan Chait — who believes that all Republican policy proposals are self-soothing gestures by powerless intellectuals, or lying billboards mean to conceal the construction of Galt's Gulch — could write this about it: "It is certainly true that Ryan's new proposals represent an important step away from the political extreme he has occupied his entire career... His poverty proposal contains signs of serious engagement with, and even concern for, the problem of poverty."
Ryan's plan — along with Dave Camp's tax plan and proposals by Sens. Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Mike Lee on a range of issues — reveals that at least some in the GOP are moving beyond the party's "You didn't build that," anti-47 percent posturing. These proposals constitute green shoots in what had been a policy-thinking desert for the Obama-era right. If I had my druthers, some enterprising senator would pick up a few of Jon Huntsman's proposed financial reforms.
Democrats may accuse all these proposals of being a mere performance put on for the benefit of grandee policy commentators. But what exactly is the policy agenda Hillary Clinton wants to enact? So far, all we have are gloomy reports about her difficulty balancing how she talks about the go-go 1990s. The GOP has a long way to go, but the latest Ryan proposal is a sign that at least it's moving.