Ryan and Rubio Blow Steam, Stay on Course

Jamelle Bouie / The American Prospect

He still doesn't care about poor people.

It's clear from their negotiations over the fiscal cliff that Republicans have not abandoned their commitment to lower taxes on the rich and fewer services for ordinary Americans. They continue to support a bare bones federal government, regardless of the damage it would do to middle- and working-class families.

But as evidenced by the 2012 elections, this is not a winning message—voters tend to vote against the politicians who promise to take things away from them. There are a few ways Republicans could respond to this; they could rethink their priorities and abandon the crusade against the welfare state. Or, they could repackage old ideas in new rhetoric, and hope that the public–and the press—will treat this as "moderation."

If Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio are at all representative of conservative thought, then we should expect the GOP to take the path of least resistance, and choose the latter. Last night, the two lawmakers addressed a small crowd of conservatives at the Jack Kemp Foundation's annual "Leadership Dinner." And in their speeches, both spoke passionately of helping middle-class families and fostering "opportunity," all the while offering the same proscriptions for lower taxes and fewer services.

Rubio, for instance, acknowledged the high cost of health care, slow economic growth, struggling schools, and crushing poverty. What he offered was low tax rates—"I oppose the President’s plan to raise taxes"—a plan to reduce the debt by closing loopholes (a la the one proposed by Mitt Romney, widely derided as simply impossible), "flexible savings accounts" for health care coverage, and a call for fewer regulations. There was a point where noted the social disintegration caused by poverty—"[C]hildren raised in tough circumstances, struggle in comparison with children raised in a more stable family setting."—but what he proposed was…more "mentoring" and a "national conversation":

Rather than pretend we know the answer, we should start by engaging those who do important work every day in mentoring young people and leading them on the right path: their teachers, coaches, parents, priests, and pastors. Government leaders should take part in, and encourage, a national conversation about the importance of civil society institutions and leaders in creating the social infrastructure needed for success.

In fairness to Rubio, this was near-visionary when compared to Paul Ryan's bland platitudes. To wit:

We need a vision for bringing opportunity into every life – one that promotes strong families, secure livelihoods, and an equal chance for every American to fulfill their highest aspirations for themselves and their children. This vision leaves behind the failures of the past. It seeks instead to build on those reforms that have worked.

It calls on government to encourage, not displace, the efforts of free people to help one another. It calls for a stronger safety net – one that protects the most vulnerable and promotes self-reliance. It calls for an end to the chronic inequalities in our education system.

And finally, it promotes economic growth through free enterprise – because nothing has done more to lift people everywhere out of poverty

What does Ryan propose to do to achieve this? He doesn't say. But judging from where he stands on the fiscal cliff—opposed to higher tax rates, pushing for deeper spending cuts—it's safe to say that his substantive commitments haven't changed from where they've been for the last four years.

The simple fact is that Republicans have changed nothing about their opposition to the welfare state, or their non-concern for growing inequality. What's more, with few exceptions, there is little appetite for change. Conservatives—donors, activists, and voters—want Republicans to stay the course, and continue their opposition to government action in the economy, and elsewhere.

For at least the next election cycle, we should expect Republicans to offer more of the same—despite November's loss, their incentives haven't changed.