Paul Ryan featured above, Creative Commons photo

According to Andrew

By Andrew Geisler, geisleaj@miamioh.edu

Heading into the next Congress, Congressman Paul Ryan continues to be the House Republican Conference’s most intriguing member. The 44-year old House veteran and former Republican Vice Presidential nominee has options ranging from House leadership, to the chairmanship of arguably the most powerful Congressional committee, or even a White House run of his own in 2016. With a number of good options in place, what should
Ryan do next?

In order to understand Ryan’s positioning, it’s important to remember that as Vice Presidential nominee, Ryan was quite unhappy with the way the Romney campaign handled poverty issues. The Romney campaign has been widely panned for pitching only for the votes of business owners small and large, without much regard for the average American. As a Jack Kemp devotee, considering business interests alone has never been Ryan’s modus operandi.

With this strain of thought in mind, and keeping in line with his reputation as one of the only true policy entrepreneurs among elected Republicans, Ryan released an interesting discussion draft of proposals to combat poverty
in America.

The draft includes, most notably, an expansion of the earned income tax credit and a controversial opportunity grant, which would give those in poverty a case worker to personalize a plan to lift them out of poverty. The proposal was informed by a tour Ryan took with Bob Woodson, the founder and president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise and a man who has committed his life to fighting poverty effectively, to see how neighborhood-based organizations best serve their communities.

It will be difficult to defeat those on the right who view a focus on combatting poverty as overly paternalistic if the government is playing any real role. This fight will be similar to the one Ryan had with the tacticians on the Romney campaign who were convinced a fixation on marginal tax rates could land Mitt in the White House.

Though it hasn’t been clear from the run out the clock and sit on your hands national strategy for Republican Senate candidates, the party still has a serious issue with attracting Americans who vote based on which candidate is more in touch with people like them. President Obama defeated Romney by 10 points in Fox News exit polling on this issue, and unless that number turns around, it will be difficult for Republicans to win back the White House in 2016.

This is the most important political issue Republicans face. All Republican leaders should make their future decisions based on how well they will be able to combat the perception that conservatism doesn’t care about those who struggle to get by, or that it’s somehow incompatible with compassion. With his clear focus on issues facing lower and middle class Americans, Ryan is on the front lines of this necessary shift.  

So from where should Ryan continue his work? It’s time for Ryan to make a clear decision.

He doesn’t seem to want to run for president in 2016. And given his age, he could conceivably be in this conversation for the next 20 plus years, so what’s
the rush there?

Presidential campaigns also unfortunately tend to be graveyards for good public policy proposals. Maybe this will change in 2016, but Ryan likely thinks he can do the most good at this stage from DC, not freezing to death in Iowa and New Hampshire.

What about House leadership or the chairmanship of the powerful Ways and Means committee? It looked like his path to lead Ways and Means was relatively clear until Texas Rep. Kevin Brady announced he would be running for the post.

Brady is a Ways and Means stalwart who has chaired multiple subcommittees. There’s a real chance he could defeat Ryan. And though I think Ryan would be the better member to shepherd through comprehensive tax reform legislation next Congress, the path to the position just got a bit harder.

House leadership has certainly never really been a bastion of policy entrepreneurship. The jobs are more about keeping things moving on time, and ensuring there’s some uniformity among the rank and file. They’re required to whip tough votes many members really don’t want to make, and especially given the rightward tilt of the conference since 2008, being a member of leadership cannot be much fun.

As often happens in politics, there’s no natural fit–just a few high profile options. I’d bet Ryan goes all in against Brady and chairs Ways and Means, but would rather see him elevated to an even more high profile spot. That means sucking it up and running for president.

Ryan is the GOP’s fiscal golden boy and also moves the party in the right direction on poverty issues. A successful Ryan candidacy would be the triumph of substance over style—something the country could certainly use after eight years of the Obama presidency.  

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