Paul Ryan and the Poor
There’s an interesting Buzzfeed article going around about Paul Ryan’s increasing focus on policies to help the poor, one apparently inspired by experiencing during the last election and fueled by his admiration for Pope Francis. A few parts of the article betray a bit of an editorial sneer towards conservatives, but in general it’s well written and fair.
Ryan was there for a meeting that the Romney campaign brain trust had seemed, for months, intent on stopping. Since joining the presidential ticket in August, the Wisconsin congressman had been lobbying to spend more time campaigning in diverse, low-income neighborhoods. Ryan, a protégé of the late, big-tent GOP visionary Jack Kemp, argued the visits would show the country that Republicans cared about the poor. The number-crunchers in Boston countered that every hour spent on inner-city photo ops was a lost opportunity to rally middle-class suburbanites who might actually vote for them. Eventually, they reached a compromise: Ryan could give one big speech about poverty in Ohio and hold an off-the-record roundtable with community leaders who work with the poor — but the campaign would have to vet them all.
And then, as Ryan prepared to leave to deliver his speech, a tattooed minister who had arrived at the meeting via motorcycle asked the congressman if he could lay hands on him to pray.
Ryan looked momentarily panicked, according to some who were in the room, but then he shrugged and smiled. “I’m Catholic, but I’m cool with that,” he responded.
Secret Service agents tensed up as the group surrounded him and the man placed his hands on Ryan’s shoulders — inches away from his neck, a nervous aide noted later. The candidate made the sign of the cross, and the minister called on the power of God to give Ryan strength, and help him fulfill his divine mission. Several people present, including Ryan, became emotional.
Ryan left the meeting, gave his speech, lost the election, and returned home to Wisconsin. But several weeks later, he couldn’t stop thinking about that prayer. Speaking with a close aide, he said it was the most powerful experience he’d had during the campaign — and that he felt strongly he needed to act on it.
Ryan has spent the past year quietly touring impoverished communities across the country with Woodson, while his staff digs through center-right think tank papers in search of conservative policy proposals aimed at aiding the poor. Next spring, Ryan plans to introduce a new battle plan for the war on poverty — one he hopes will launch a renewed national debate on the issue.
[T]hose closest to him say Ryan’s new mission is the result of a genuine spiritual epiphany — sparked, in part, by the prayer in Cleveland, and sustained by the emergence of a new pope who has lit the world on fire with bold indictments of the “culture of prosperity” and a challenge to reach out the weak and disadvantaged.
“What I love about the pope is he is triggering the exact kind of dialogue we ought to be having,” Ryan told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel this week, adding, “People need to get involved in their communities to make a difference, to fix problems soul to soul.”
“Paul is someone who is very cognizant of the social magisterium of the Catholic Church… which encompasses everything from how we care for our neighbors to the idea that there’s hope and purpose and goodness in every human life,” said Flaherty, who recalled slipping away from the Republican convention in 2012 to attend mass with Ryan. “It also includes the ongoing duty of the strong to protect the weak — which I know drives Paul and his effort to help lift people out of poverty.”
Like many conservative Catholics, Ryan uses the doctrine of subsidiarity — which favors individual freedom and local governance over the power of large, central authorities — to reconcile his concern for the poor with his general suspicion of federal welfare programs. In this, Ryan has found inspiration in the teachings of Pope Francis, who said in 2009, “We cannot respond with truth to the challenge of eradicating exclusion and poverty if the poor continue to be objects, targets of the action of the state and other organizations in a paternalistic and aid-based sense, instead of subjects, where the state and society create social conditions that promote and safeguard their rights and allow them to be builders of their own destiny.”
Ryan echoed the sentiment in a commencement speech in May, putting the message in more distinctly Republican terms. “Concern for the poor doesn’t demand faith in big government,” Ryan told the graduates of Benedictine College. “It demands something more from all of us. If we continue to believe that the war on poverty is primarily a government responsibility, then we will continue to weaken our communities. We will drift further apart as people.”
A number of smart young conservative writers (both the ones who spring to mind for me, Ross Douthat and Ramesh Ponnuru are Catholic as well) have been writing for a while that in order to re-find the grassroots popularity that it enjoyed under Reagan, conservatism needs to move past the focus on top income bracket tax rates which was more relevant in the 1970s and focus on the difficulties faced by the poor and the lower middle class. While there’s a lot of moral preening on the left about focusing on the poor, there’s a reasonable conservative argument to be made that the progressive policies of recent decades have little to offer them. But the case can’t be strictly negative. Conservatives would need to refocus on policies and messages that actually help and resonate with the working poor on issue other than God and guns. Perhaps Ryan will become that voice.