Paul Ryan, Friend of the Po’ Folks

TPM’s Tom Kludt wrote what he probably considered a pretty classic “man bites dog” story with an efficiently ironic lede:

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) said Monday that he’s focused primarily on addressing poverty, a week after he complained that the farm bill did not include enough cuts to the food stamp program.

But anyone who’s followed Ryan’s background and recent trajectory probably wasn’t too surprised. Long a self-proclaimed disciple of Jack Kemp and his “empowerment conservative” mini-tribe, Ryan has felt the need to emphasize the bona fides of his interest in the less fortunate after a couple of years of criticism of his serial budget proposals–which for all their somewhat varying treatments of Medicare and taxes, have been unvarying in their savage treatment of low-income programs–from all directions, most painfully from the U.S. Conference of Bishops. So he really does have a strong personal reason to insist on the claim that New Deal and particularly Great Society legacy programs have hurt the poor in this country, and that aside from reducing “dependence on government” (i.e., assistance from government), the standard GOP agenda will somehow foster opportunity and social mobility for low-income folk.

There’s plenty of available rhetoric in the conservative playbook to make such claims. But the trouble for pols like Ryan is the tendency to sound a mite patronizing if not actively hostile towards the poor when he’s speaking to GOP audiences where positive feelings towards those people are not wide or deep. Then you tend to hear Ryan pontificating about the need to instill greater “moral fiber” in the poor by leaving them to their own meager resources.

But that’s probably okay from Ryan’s point of view. Like the ever-popular phenomenon of the African-American conservatives who excoriate government poverty programs or affirmative action efforts as designed to create a “plantation,” the white “empowerment” pol isn’t really aiming at gaining political support from the people he’s forever talking about, but instead reassuring white conservatives that their anti-government sentiments are consistent with tough love, not just fear and hatred, for po’ folks. I don’t know, and in most respects don’t care, whether Paul Ryan believes his own rhetoric. The whole point is that in terms of how it affects the objects of this love, fear or hatred, it just doesn’t matter.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.