Speaker Ryan?

Congressman Paul Ryan announced last night that he would be willing to run for Speaker of the House, provided certain conditions were met. It was a brilliant turning of the tables on the Freedom Caucus, the forty or so arch-conservative members of the GOP caucus who had thought they would be the ones presenting a list of demands. Ryan beat them to the punch and if they fail to rally around him now, they will expose themselves as even more extreme than we had previously thought – which is saying a lot. The world may not be flat, but at some point, you really can go so far to the right (or left) that you fall off the earth.

By all accounts, Cong. Ryan is a decent and responsible man. Of course, current Speaker John Boehner is a decent and responsible man too. The question is whether any Speaker with a sense of responsibility for the good of the country can satisfy the bomb throwers on the right. They do not want to govern if governance entails compromise. They think that because they have forty votes in Congress, they should be able to call all the shots. It is insane – and you only have to listen to one of their members do a television interview to realize how crazy they are – but it was enough to break Boehner. Ryan is right to insist that instead of looking to him to unify the GOP caucus, the caucus must commit to unifying itself. But, unity with this crowd will come at a high price.

Ryan is one of the few politicians who has seriously focused on the issue of poverty. Getting politicians to focus on the poor, whether they are Democrats or Republicans, is like pulling teeth in this town. And, Ryan was open to questioning his presuppositions when he engaged the issue of poverty, for example, his set aside his initial suspicion of case management after he saw it in operation, indeed, coming to recognize, as most social workers will tell you, that good case management is the key to matching the person with the opportunity that Ryan touts. For his efforts, Ryan was unfairly pilloried by liberal groups like the Center for American Progress which said he wanted to micromanage the lives of the poor. Once again, wealthy liberals showed that they are willing to distort to get their way and, as well, that their concern for the poor will never get in the way of scoring a cheap, even dishonest, political point.

That said, Ryan’s proposals to combat poverty also showed his limits, better to say, his limit. The singular difficulty with Ryan is that he is an ideologue, a libertarian, and that it colors most of what he does. No one ever accused Boehner of being an ideologue. And, the worry is that it is precisely Ryan’s ideological tenacity that makes him acceptable to the extremists in the Freedom Caucus.  

I recoiled when I learned that Ryan had encouraged his staff to read Ayn Rand. I am sure that Ryan is a smart man but reading Ayn Rand is not a smart use of one’s time. It is precisely the kind of thing the extremists like about him. Ryan has tried to distance himself from Rand, but he has been clumsy about it. Like many libertarian Catholics, he says he accepts Rand’s ideas about the economy, but rejects her underlying anthropology and, specifically, her virulent anti-religious sensibilities. The problem is, of course, is that divorcing core ideas about the human person from the economic ideas that are derived therefrom is easier said than done. And, if Ryan truly has abandoned Rand and ambraced Aquinas, can he point to a single instance of how such a seismic shift in philosophic approach has altered a particular policy?

In 2012, Ryan famously equated the Catholic principle of subsidiarity with federalism. Of course, this shows a fundamental misunderstanding of Catholic social teaching which does not share his instinctive hostility to government. Again, Mr. Ryan is a smart man, so I scratch my head in thinking how he could have equated subsidiarity, from the Latin root subsidium, or help, with our constitutional separation of powers, fostering antagonistic centers of power. Even in his comments last night, after speaking to the House GOP caucus, there was an intellectual laziness, and a moral lack, in the casual we he mentioned “a culture of dependency.” Anyone who knows the crushing effects of poverty does not lightly dismiss the need for radical, healthy codependency with the poor, and offering platitudes about opportunity.

My core worry about a Ryan speakership certainly builds upon the above concerns about his faulty intellectual groundings, but it is different and it involves a different worry I have about the president. Ryan’s number one policy objective is the overhaul of our nation’s entitlement programs. He has said that his dream job is the one he currently has, Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. But, as Speaker, Ryan will certainly be able to keep tabs on any legislation affecting entitlements coming up through that committee, but he will have the unique opportunity, as Speaker, to sit down an negotiate with President Obama on the budget. If Ryan’s Randian economic impulses make common cause with President Obama’s search for additional legacy achievements, I fear, and fear greatly, that there could be a budget deal that includes drastic changes to our entitlement programs.

Entitlement reform and immigration reform are really the only two political issues that require a renegotiation of our nation’s social contract. (I consider tax reform as an extension of entitlement reform.) And, the same president who kicked organized labor to the curb on the Trans Pacific trade deal is certainly capable of accepting the kind of high brow “solution” to entitlement reform that socks it to the working class. I would rather have someone else than Obama re-negotiating the social contract, and I would rather see those negotiations take place in a period of greater social and political solidarity than the solidarity deficit we suffer from today. Obama doesn’t get it and Ryan gets it wrong. But, both are ambitious and both are removed from the kinds of struggles most working class and working poor families go through. I can easily see them cutting a deal. And that scares the living bejeezus out of me.

I wish Ryan well if he does indeed assume the speakership. I am sure he would responsibly address the upcoming debt ceiling vote and similar matters. He and Senator Patti Murray reached a bipartisan budget deal before and might do so again. But, if Congressman Ryan does become the next Speaker, I hope the political climate of a presidential election keeps him and Obama far from any ruminations about how the could reform our nation’s entitlement programs.


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