Paul Ryan is, at least arguably, the leader of the Republican Party. He was the GOP's vice-presidential nominee in 2012. He's now speaker of the House of Representatives. And he remains the party's unofficial wonk-in-chief.
So what lessons has the savvy, brainy Ryan drawn from the stunning ascent of Donald Trump, as the billionaire (probably) businessman closes in on the Republican presidential nomination?
Maybe none. Certainly none that suggest Ryan thinks the party needs a big change of direction.
In a CNBC interview on Thursday, reporter John Harwood repeatedly probed Ryan on what the rise of Trump means for the future of the GOP. Not only is Trump against many of the GOP's traditional policy pillars — including free trade, immigration, and entitlement reform — but he is also attracting working-class voters who are equally skeptical of center-right economics as practiced in Washington.
To his great credit, Ryan insisted that he will continue to push for Social Security and Medicare fixes to prevent a future debt crisis. And he still supports the Pacific trade deal, noting that "America should be at the table, writing the rules of the global economy instead of China."
All good stuff, as far as it goes. But at no point did Ryan acknowledge that the rise of Trumpism possibly signals a Republican agenda inadequate in meeting the anxieties and real struggles of middle- and working-class America. This exchange between Harwood and Ryan about the tax burden is illustrative:
Harwood: "On taxes, when your predecessor as Ways and Means chair, Dave Camp, came out with a comprehensive tax reform a few years ago, he adopted as a principle that it was going to be distributionally neutral. It wasn't going to give an advantage to any group over the current system. Is that still a principle that you think is appropriate for the Republican tax agenda?"
Ryan: "So I do not like the idea of buying into these distributional tables. What you're talking about is what we call static distribution. It's a ridiculous notion. What it presumes is life in the economy is some fixed pie, and it's not going to change. And it's really up to government to redistribute the slices more equitably. That is not how the world works. That's now how life works. You can shrink or expand the economy, and what we want to maximize is economic growth and upward mobility so that everybody can get a bigger slice of the pie."
Harwood: "And you're not worried that those blue-collar Republican voters, who are voting in the primaries right now, are going to say, 'Hey, wait a minute. You're really taking care of people at the top more than you're taking care of me.'"
Ryan: "I think most people don't think, 'John's success comes at my expense.' Or, 'My success comes at your expense.' People don't think like that. People want to know the deck is fair. Bernie Sanders talks about that stuff. That's not who we are."
In other words, Republicans should keep deeply cutting taxes for the richest Americans — as part of across-the-board tax cuts — and not give any special preference to targeted or direct middle-class tax relief.
Not only does Ryan's position clash with the Trumpist truths of 2016 — his position makes little sense from a policy standpoint. Analyses of the tax plans of the various GOP presidential candidates show their deep individual income tax cuts — such as slashing the top rate from 40 percent to 28 percent — would cost the most revenue while producing the least amount of economic growth. That 2014 big-bang tax reform plan by Camp would have likely increased the size of the economy by less than one percent over the next decade. And if you ask Silicon Valley about pro-growth policy, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists are far more likely to mention burdensome regulation than income tax cuts.
Ryan's professed politics are also dodgy. Most middle-class Americans seem to think they're already paying their fair share in taxes. And a YouGov finding poll last year found 45 percent of Americans disagreed with the idea that lower taxes on the wealthy creates shared prosperity vs. 29 percent who agreed. Also, fair or not, voters see the GOP as the party of the rich. A recent Pew survey found 62 percent say the GOP favors the wealthy, compared to 26 percent who say it favors the middle class. And recall that in 2012, 81 percent of voters who wanted a president who empathized with them voted for Barack Obama.
The same middle class that does not trust the GOP on trade and immigration is also unlikely to trust them to reform Medicare and Social Security or the tax code. So maybe the GOP ought to listen to the recommendation of National Review editor Reihan Salam and take a break from tax cuts for households making over $250,000 a year. Even better: Use your political capital to formulate a middle-class agenda that acknowledges the challenges as well as the opportunities from globalization and technological change. This might mean expanded tax credits or payroll tax cuts for working-class families. Maybe even broad wage insurance for people who lose their jobs, whether to offshoring or the robots. Social Security reform that improved benefits for those at the bottom. And wouldn't the GOP be better off if voters thought it was the party obsessed with making higher education a better value for students as opposed to cutting taxes at the top?
The GOP needs to change. If conservative reformers in Washington won't do it, then populist outsiders like Donald Trump just might.