Paul Ryan's 'compassionate conservatism'

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During the campaign he talked about how America was becoming Greece because it couldn’t afford to pay for its public largesse. He spent the last few years as the authority in Congress on the budget, the lawmaker who knew all the dark corners of the federal government where money was being wasted. And before that it was entitlement reform – Social Security and then Medicare, how to partially privatize them to ensure long-term solvency. Along the way he even touted tax reform in his “Roadmap” economic proposals.  

If Ryan is suddenly a compassionate conservative, it’s a metamorphosis that only Mitt Romney could fully appreciate. Romney never stopped changing his positions and moving his political center of gravity during two decades in and out of electoral politics. Whereas Romney’s claims were forced (“I was a severely conservative Republican governor”) and he sometimes had to be dragged kicking and screaming toward acceptable positions (healthcare, abortion), Ryan adjusts smoothly to new issues and is never unprepared. His career background as a congressional staffer and professional conservative is a boon to that.

Ryan didn’t introduce any proposals in his speech Tuesday, but if he does big government conservatives will probably say, “Welcome aboard.” But even if he publishes a Roadmap to end poverty, it’s difficult to see a path for him to the White House in 2016. Losing vice-presidential candidates in the modern era (Sarah Palin, Joe Lieberman, Jack Kemp, Dan Quayle, Lloyd Bentsen, Geraldine Ferraro) have not gone on to further success at that level. For whatever reasons, voters are disinclined to vote for House members for president, just as they are mayors (ask Rudy Giuliani) and candidates without electoral experience (Herman Cain, Ross Perot). Finally, 2016 looks to be a wide-open and competitive field for the Republicans. Involvement in the 2012 race will probably turn out to be a hindrance rather than an asset.

Ryan did mention one specific policy proposal Tuesday night, and it wasn’t in his prepared remarks. “Of course, every problem does not disappear through the workings of the free market alone,” he said midway through. “I would love to say if we just went on the gold standard it would all be settled.”
The room laughed, but it was awkward laughter because it probably put Paul Ryan on a smaller stage than ever and before an audience of free-market conservatives. Jack Kemp sponsored legislation on the gold standard when he was in the House of Representatives. He saw it as the best way to preserve the earnings of America’s workers. Ryan ridicules it. Consider that rising prices achieved a virtual tie with unemployment as voters’ top economic concern in November’s exit polls, yet the Romney-Ryan ticket got no advantage in votes on this issue against a president committed to easy money. Ryan had nothing to say about monetary policy during the campaign and has even less now.

Ryan’s search for a message may be symptomatic of the Republican Party’s desperate quest to connect with a larger base of voters. That’s appropriate after such a beating. But they’ll have to come up with specific ideas soon in order to be taken seriously. Otherwise the clouds of 2012 will hover. Right now it’s hard to see how the GOP’s economic standard-bearer who was on the ballot will be the one to turn it around.   

Danker is a Washington-based writer and the economics director at the American Principles Project. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the organization.