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July 24, 2014 3:44 PM The Two Paul Ryans

By Ed Kilgore

Ezra Klein has been accused of being of two minds about Paul Ryan, though in truth his once abundant praise for the Wisconsin Randian Thomist ended abruptly upon the appearance of the first full-blown Ryan Budget in 2011.

Just over a year ago, I wrote a column praising Rep. Paul Ryan’s Roadmap. I called its ambition “welcome, and all too rare.” I said its dismissal of the status quo was “a point in its favor.” When the inevitable backlash came, I defended Ryan against accusations that he was a fraud, and that technical mistakes in his tax projections should be taken as evidence of dishonesty. I also, for the record, like Ryan personally, and appreciate his policy-oriented approach to politics.
So I believe I have some credibility when I say that the budget Ryan released last week is not courageous or serious or significant. It’s a joke, and a bad one.>For one thing, Ryan’s savings all come from cuts, and at least two-thirds of them come from programs serving the poor. The wealthy, meanwhile, would see their taxes lowered, and the Defense Department would escape unscathed. It is not courageous to attack the weak while supporting your party’s most inane and damaging fiscal orthodoxies. But the problem isn’t just that Ryan’s budget is morally questionable. It also wouldn’t work.

That continued to be the tenor of Ezra’s commentary on Ryan as defined by his famous budget, which in turn became the official federal fiscal blueprint for the entire GOP.

But now Klein is again of two minds about Ryan, presumably because Ryan is of two minds about Ryan. The Wisconsin’s new “poverty plan” is sharply at odds with his past budget submissions in some crucial particulars. And Ryan falls into incoherence in try to explain the conflict:

This is a pivot Ryan previewed in a conversation with Buzzfeed’s McKay Coppins. “I’ve got two roles,” he says. “I’m chairman of the House Budget Committee representing my conference … and I’m a House member representing Wisconsin doing my own thing. I can’t speak for everybody and put my stuff in their budget. My work on poverty is a separate thing.”

Oh, okay. We are supposed to believe the Ryan Budget, his main credential for climbing onto the 2012 Republican presidential ticket, was actually “my conference’s” budget. He was just accomodating other Republicans, not “doing my own thing.” So now we’re seeing the “real Ryan?” Or is it just another ploy to be all things to all people?

I suspect Ezra will get even more flack for returning to praise of Ryan this time around, but I’m sympathetic. He probably feels he’s providing an incentive for the Good Ryan to subdue the Bad Ryan once and for all, and even hints that the Bad Ryan’s work was mainly a product of the days when deficits and debt were taken more seriously by everybody.

But in the end, there is a very long history of “reform-minded” Republicans talking big and expressing compassion about poverty, and then screwing the poor the first opportunity they get to satisfy their “base’s” desire to shrink, not “reform,” the federal government, and decimate, not “save” crucial low-income safety net programs. It’s going to take a lot more than a “poverty plan” to make me treat the Ryan Budget as anything less than his central enduring legacy. After all, that budget wasn’t a “plan” or a “speech,” but legislation his party was fully planning to implement had things turned out a bit differently in 2012.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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