Paul Ryan Poverty Speech: A Scholarly Analysis or “What the Hell Was That?”

Yesterday Paul Ryan was invited to deliver his first serious policy speech of the presidential campaign. The result was a lengthy speech about poverty, outlining the GOP plan to address the needs of the less fortunate — or at least outlining what the Romney campaign wants people to think constitutes their plan in the final stretch before the election.

Why talk about poverty? Certainly the poor do not make up a critical component of the Romney coalition. The answer is to assuage the guilt of middle class and wealthy voters who still adhere to the basic principle of moral government stated by Pearl Buck as “the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.” From the perspective of the Romney campaign, there remains a pesky minority of undecided middle class and wealthy voters who can’t quite get behind the idea of throwing the poor into a Hobbesian hellhole where life is nasty, brutish, and short. This is the precise discomfort that the Obama campaign targets when casting Mitt Romney as a plutocratic layoff king.

Why give this speech to Paul Ryan? Hmm…was he recently seen making a mockery of the conditions facing the homeless?

The crux of Ryan’s poverty speech is to convey a value cue to the voting audience. Value cues are used as a substitute for policy details because empirical research demonstrates that easily distracted, low information voters more often cast their ballot based upon their sense of a candidate’s values than their actual policy proposals (see, e.g., David Doherty, “Presidential Rhetoric, Candidate Evaluations, and Party Identification: Can Parties “Own” Values?” Political Research Quarterly, Sept. 2008). By talking about the need to alleviate poverty in the United States, Paul Ryan seeks to establish Mitt Romney and himself as owning this value. Especially considering the retreat of the Democratic Party from openly discussing poverty and opting for an elastic definition of “middle class.” In retrospect, this is a strategy move foreshadowed by Ryan’s disastrous trip to a soup kitchen for a photo op of him washing clean dishes.

In addition to bolstering GOP credibility on the issue, standing against poverty suggests a value failure on the part of Barack Obama and the Democrats. Despite the lack of attention paid to the issue, concern for the poor is a value commonly attributed to the Democrats. All value statements are filtered through the preconceived notions of the candidates and their parties making it more difficult for a Republican to credibly talk about alleviating poverty. But by expressing failure in anti-poverty efforts, Ryan sought to simultaneously undermine the faith of the audience in the commitment of the Democratic Party to this value. A realignment of preconceived notions about the parties may be unlikely but not unheard of — think back 4 years and consider whether or not you believed Barack Obama would hold an insurmountable lead on the question of national security going into reelection.

Ryan begins with the sort of hackneyed opening that you’d expect from a politician but that nonetheless makes you groan.

In so many ways, our nation’s history has been a long struggle to bring opportunity into every life. Our nation was founded on the creed, as Jimmy just said, all men are created equal, that we all possess equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

A backward call to an aspirational goal from the Founders. This invocation takes advantage of the reverence Americans have for the Founders and their guiding documents, but also invites a communion with the audience — this is something we all share by virtue of being American. After holding out this ideal, what could possibly come next…

But of course, the quality of opportunity hasn’t always been a fact of life in our country. It’s been something we’ve had to constantly fight for. It’s a cause that continues to this day.

Oh. Right. That the country currently fails to meet that ideal. Yawn. I’ve seen better crafted high school presentations.

A Romney-Ryan supporter outside an Ohio rally

Ryan litters the speech with statistics illustrating the failure to meet the needs of the poor — dropout rates, declining educational success, and falling incomes. From a fact-checking perspective the speech is laughable, suggesting that the Obama administration is responsible for conditions created almost exclusively by Republican administrations and Congresses pursuing the “Starve the Beast” strategy for over 30 years and forcing dangerous cuts by creating a deficit. Indeed, Paul Ryan has authored multiple budget proposals that gut support for the poor and kick 35.7 million people off health insurance without the means to replace it.

But these policy realities were not on display in this campaign speech. In an effort to sell genuine compassion as a Republican value, Paul Ryan spoke primarily of his concern about the issue and only ventured into policy sparingly and only when the proposals were sanitized to maintain the overall effect.

First, Paul Ryan defends 1990s welfare reform:

This was so obvious to everyone that by the 1990s that when a major welfare program was finally reformed, the law was passed by a Republican Congress and signed by a Democratic President.

Instead of seeing increases in hunger and poverty, we saw welfare enrollment drop dramatically as millions of our fellow citizens gained new lives of independence. We saw child poverty rates fall over 20% in 4 years. And we saw employment for single mothers rise. Fewer welfare checks going out, it meant more money for states to spend on childcare so that more moms can go to work to support themselves.

Welfare reform worked because it encouraged the best in people. It appealed to their desire to shape their own destiny and advance in life. And it made major strides towards getting the government out of the business of fostering dependency.

Did you know Bill Clinton agrees with Mitt Romney? No? Well Paul Ryan wants you to know that he does. Voters hate partisanship and generally like Bill Clinton. Paul Ryan is implying that Mitt Romney would return America to the policies of Bill Clinton. In fact, this policy is the policy of Barack Obama, and Bill Clinton has publicly denounced Mitt Romney for characterizing the Clinton welfare reform bill as anything akin to current GOP proposals. But again, this is all about effect.

Moreover, there’s reason to believe this program didn’t work and has only fueled the upward spiral of the food stamps that Republicans so dread.

Second, Ryan lauds private charitable giving:

The short of it is that there has to be a balance, allowing government to act for the common good while leaving private groups free to do the work that only they can do. There’s a vast middle ground between the governments and the individual.

Our families and our neighborhoods, the groups we join, our places of worship – this is where we lead our lives; it’s where we live our lives. They shape our character. They give our lives direction. And they help make us a self-governing people.

Is this supposed to be a serious policy speech? The solution to poverty is “hope people volunteer more?” How does the current government support system dissuade charitable giving? Well, in fact it doesn’t and charitable giving is unaffected by taxation — increasing directly in line with government spending for the past 40 years. You know what might dissuade it though? Eliminating the charitable donation deduction as Romney’s tax proposal would.

“A is Absolutely lying about your commitment to charity”

However, as a value cue charity is powerful. Only the most cold-hearted Ayn Rand freaks (read: Paul Ryan) actually look down on charitable efforts. By lauding charity, Paul Ryan attempts to substitute himself and Mitt Romney for the Platonic ideal of a charitable volunteer and garner the goodwill the audience would give that volunteer.

Then Ryan spoke of education reform:

But strengthening these safety net programs is still not enough. If we want to restore the promise of America, then we must reform our broken public-school system. It works for a lot of people but it doesn’t work for everybody.

The special interests that dominate this system always seem to have their own futures lined up pretty nicely.  But when you think about the future of the young adults that the system has failed, many will face a lot of grief and disappointment – and their country owes them better than that…

…Sending your child to a great school should not be a privilege of the well-to-do. Look, that is why Mitt Romney and I believe that choice should be available to every parent in our country, wherever they live. Education reform is urgent, and freedom – freedom – is the key.

I’ve written before about the rhetorical tactic of attacking teachers by calling them a “union” or “special interest” to prevent the audience from realizing that conservatives are really talking about firing your kid’s teachers and shoving 40 kids in a class taught by a minimum wage kid just out of college who will leave after two years for better opportunities. Paul Ryan invokes the idea that “better” schools exist that children could attend if given a voucher. The fact that these schools will not be able to open their doors to all the students at struggling schools is not mentioned. Nor is the logical response — “hey, instead of sending kids to an insufficient number of hypothetical good schools, why not just make the schools we have better?” But school choice is a market tested line that dupes voters into believing that personal choice is the cause of school failure. It allows the privileged to write off the underprivileged by saying, “they had a choice….”

In the final analysis, this speech accomplished little to realign the preconceptions of candidate values. The soup kitchen photo op, the video of Ryan blasting the majority of the country as “takers,” and Mitt Romney’s comments explaining that 47% of the country lack personal responsibility invoke too great a visceral impact to overcome with general platitudes. Perhaps the Romney campaign has reason to believe there are a significant number of undecideds who needed only superficial nods to poverty to lock down a Romney vote — but I wouldn’t count on it if I were a strategist in Boston.

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