Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the January issue of Townhall Magazine.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) has been an intellectual leader of the Republican Party since he released his first budget, A Roadmap for America’s Future, in 2008. By 2011, Ryan had won over enough colleagues that the House of Representatives adopted his new budget, A Path to Prosperity. Now Ryan is entering a new chapter in his political life, and is releasing a new book, “The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea.” Townhall’s Guy Benson sat down with Ryan to discuss his new book, the state of the Republican Party, and the future of the United States of America.
Benson: We are joined by Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Congressman, it is great to talk to you again.
Ryan: Hey! Thanks for having me, good to be back with you, Guy.
Benson: We are excited to be talking to you about your new book, “The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea.” What are you hoping to achieve with this book?
Ryan: I am hoping to do my part to help grow and create a conservative movement that can win national elections, a conservative movement that’s principled, inclusive, aspirational, and has the ability to win a majority so we can get this done.
I worry about the direction of America. I think we have a lot of the wrong policies in place. I talk about the philosophy of liberal progressivism, which is the president’s governing philosophy, and what’s wrong with it. What’s wrong with it intellectually, what’s wrong with it philosophically, what’s wrong with it practically.
And how we can revitalize and re-apply our critical founding principles, the vision of the founders, in a way that is relevant for today.
And when you apply those principles, what the solutions actually look like and how these solutions are far more realistic. It is a vision of American life that is based on collaboration, based on inclusion and bringing people into an economy that is faster growing, does a better job at fighting poverty, that gets our debts and deficits under control, makes sure that we don’t give the next generation a lower standard of living because of the debt we would be sending them, and keeps America strong internationally so we can be peaceful, so that we can keep our national security in check.
I think it is important if you don’t like the way the direction of the country is going, which I don’t, that we as leaders offer voters a very clear alternative choice and so to me it’s a couple of things.
Talk about the governing philosophy that is necessary that is so important for what made this country great in the first place, and show what the solutions look like coming from that and show it as a contrast to liberal progressivism and the policies that are going to bankrupt this country and turn us into a welfare state that ends up with a debt crisis.
I just think it is very important to give people a very clear alternative into what it looks like and what life looks like, what kind of society and vision we are shooting for so people can get a better sense and understanding of the horizon we’re aiming for so they understand the moves we make in trying to fulfill that vision.
Benson: And I am very interested in digging into policy and solutions in a little bit, but something I think that is so interesting about the book, “The Way Forward,” is you go through an analysis, sort of a post-mortem, of the 2012 election. What would you say is the top two or three takeaways that you have from that 2012 experience?
Ryan: The reason also for writing this was it was a very unpleasant experience losing that election then seeing what direction the country took and knowing the different country we would have had had we won and put into place our 200-day plan.
So basically I didn’t wanna see that experience happen again to this country. I want to see us win elections so we can fix these problems, so what I try to do is explain here is what we need to do to fix this, to get it right. I think we need to do a better job of appealing to voters who are not historically Republican voters so we can win the Electoral College. I think our Electoral College strategy as our party has basically a margin of error in one or two states and we can no longer do that. I think we need to do a better job of expanding the appeal of conservatism, winning converts to conservatism, and showing how these ideas are inclusive and aspirational and unified.
The second point is we shouldn’t tempt ourselves with the idea of playing our own version of identity politics. Let the Left do that. We should have nothing to do with it. We should do the exact opposite just like Reagan did where we can show an aspirational political movement that is unifying.
Third, I think it is really important that you be specific about what you wanna do and what your ideas are and what your policies are and run on them.
Because if you win that kind of an election, then you have the mandate, then you have the wherewithal to actually put it in place and fix this country’s problems before it is too late. Because I do really believe that the next half a dozen or so years are going to make or break this country for a long time. They are going to set the trajectory of America for a generation and the question will be will we continue the American experiment or whether we trade it in for something like you see in Western Europe. Basically, welfare state with debt crisis.
Benson: Congressman, I know there are a lot of conservatives that I talk to who really view what happened in 2012 with a certain sense of fatalism and I have to confess that sometimes I have to guard against that mentality but I think what fuels it is two “D” words. One is demagoguery, which you mentioned; the other is demographics. People look at the identity politics that you brought up. How can those very powerful emotional tools that the other side employs be combated effectively by conservatives who sometimes have a message that requires more explanation to sell?
Ryan: Emotion is easy. Reason takes three more sentences than the one sentence of emotion. But nevertheless, you run right at these problems. You run right at these issues, which is, we need to go to nontraditional voters, to nontraditional communities, to blue communities, to all different places, to respect people and compete for their votes, and show that we have better ideas.
Jack Kemp taught me this; Ronald Reagan did this; that is what I call inclusive, happy warrior conservatism. It’s the brand, the style, the type of government that is necessary, that needs to be assembled. It’s been done before and it can be done again and it is an outright rejection of identity politics, which preys on the emotions of fear and anxiety and focuses on what divides us.
We need a spirited rejection of that and focus more on our unifying principles and our first principles and show that the American idea, which is self-governed under the rule of law, is the best possible way to help everyone improve their lot in life. And we have to show what it means in practice.
We have to show that we’re going after crony capitalism. That we are for markets, not for businesses. That means fair play. That means equality of opportunity. We have to show that we have better ideas for prosperity, we have better ideas for upper mobility, better ideas for fighting poverty, better ideas for patient-centered health care, independent energy markets, stronger national defense. We have to show what these things look like in practice, in real life.
And I really do believe that now that we see Big Government in practice, which we did not really see in 2012 for that matter. I mean it was really Obama’s word against ours because he passed his program but delayed his implementation until 2013. Obamacare. Dodd Frank. All the regulations and executive orders we have coming out of the woodwork now. We now see Big Government in practice. We now know what it looks like up front, in close, and in person. It doesn’t look anything like the rhetoric they use to sell it. The results are untethered from the rhetoric and so I think it presents us with an opportunity not just to say ‘I told you so,’ but to say ‘there is a far better way.’
And I do believe people want their country back. I do believe that people have a nostalgia for self-government under the rule of law, for civil society, for charting their own courses and going their own way, and I think they are beginning to grow a disdain for a nanny-state, for the big brother government that is seeking to take decisions away from our everyday lives and delegate our power and authority to distant bureaucrats who think they know better how to micromanage our society and our lives and our economy.
Benson: I do promise that we will get into the policy in a second, but I also wanted to talk about rethinking and retooling and reframing how we communicate as conservatives. And you actually tell a very interesting story, an exchange that you had at a Wisconsin state fair. Explain what that meant to you.
Ryan: I, along with a lot of people, are worried about people becoming more dependent on the government and less dependent on themselves and I worry about not only what that does to people, but I worry about what it does to the fiscal balance sheet of the federal government in our sustainability, in our taxes and our prosperity.
And, you know, so I conveniently lumped people into the category of takers versus makers, which is something, like you say conservatives have done, and a liberal Democrat activists came up to me at the Republican Party tent in Janesville at the Rock County Fair and really sort of tore into me asking me some very pointed questions about who exactly are the takers.
Is it the veteran that just came back from Iraq who needs health care or is it your mom who is on Medicare? Is it, you know, the person on disability? He really made me think more about what I was sounding like and how those words were really careless in many ways in that they lumped everybody into a category.
People who earned their benefits, like say a veteran, or people who are struggling and striving but are having a hard go of it but who want to be self-sufficient, who want to hit that horizon they were shooting for but were down on their luck and I think it clumsily casts an aspersion on people where none was really intended. And it was meant to try and highlight the problem producing too much dependency and discouraging work.
So I think we need to learn more about how we sound and how we come across. Are we bringing people to our cause or are we repelling people? Are we attacking people? Are we converting people? Are we convincing people? Are we being persuasive or are we just shouting and we have to think about that so that we can get people to think about our ideas, and our principles, and our solutions so that they know what we’re really trying to do is in everyone’s interests to help them get a better jump in life.
Benson: So, solutions?
Ryan: The American idea is that the condition of your birth does not determine the outcome of your life. You can make it in this country. We believe in natural rights and equality of opportunity so you can do what you want with your life and find flourishing and happiness and these are the things we’re for. But if we use the wrong language and don’t persuade people, they won’t get it or they won’t understand what we’re trying to do.
Benson: A few months ago you put out your plan for dealing with poverty in the United States and it’s a very interesting plan. Can you just describe the big, broad outlines of how you believe American poverty policy at the federal level needs to change?
Ryan: So for two years I toured America’s poor communities, learning and listening from people who are on the front lines successfully fighting poverty in very heroic ways and combing through the federal government’s budget and assessing all of the federal poverty programs and any audits or criticisms of them.
And I basically came to the conclusion that we’re spending $800 billion a year on 92 federal poverty programs and all we do is measure success on how much money we spend, how many people go on programs, and not whether we’re actually getting people out of poverty.
We have to go from measuring success based on inputs and spending to outcomes and when you look at it that way and you listen to people who are really good at fighting poverty in their communities, you have to respect the front-line poverty fighters, you have to respect civil society, you have to respect those in the communities who are fighting poverty person to person, soul to soul, eye to eye, and get the federal government back in its proper role, which is limited.
Government can help mine the supply lines, can provide resources, but it needs to respect the poverty fighters who are actually doing a better job of integrating the poor, bringing people off the sidelines and into the economy and helping people face the challenges in front of themselves to get out of poverty.
The way we describe it is welfare to work but it’s more than just passing a bill saying, “Thou shall go from welfare to work,” and it’s empowering local communities and people who have better ideas and states that can innovate with a focus on outcomes, which is what it is going to take to get people from where they are to where they need to be.
To get people off of welfare and into work, into a better life and right now when you add up all of these poverty programs, in many ways it serves as a disincentive to work. It pays not to work in some sense. It actually, you know, you lose more benefits and get more taxes when you try to go into the workforce and we do not want to do that. We do not want to disincentivize work so we need to reform that, so I put out a whole list of reforms solely focused on getting people off of welfare and into work and customizing benefits at the local and personal level so you can focus on a person’s particular needs, so you can get them into the workforce.
And more importantly, break up government monopolies of government welfare agencies and measure success and pay for success, pay for outcomes. Focus our whole entire approach on fighting poverty based on outcomes. Getting people out of poverty. That to me is the kind of wholesale change we have to come up with if we’re gonna snap out of this problem, which is in the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty where we have stubbornly high poverty rates, 45 million people in poverty, and the War on Poverty is winning.