Ryan the Wonk Losing His Street Cred

In all the recent attention being paid to “Reform Conservatives” (some galvanized by Sam Tanenhaus’ lengthy profile in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine), a glaring absence has been noted in the sparse ranks of the reform movement’s political sponsors. Yes, one-time Super Wonk Paul Ryan, who until recently epitomized Big Brains in the GOP, is nowhere to be seen, and may actually be diverging from the reformers on key tax and budget issues.

Jonathan Chait argues that the cool pragmatism of the Reform Conservatives is at odds with the “apocalyptic” attitude towards Obama and liberalism that Ryan shares with the Tea Folk. But TNR’s Brian Beutler is more precise in noting that the reformicons’ antipathy to the tax agenda of the business community and support for “family-friendly” tax policies is at odds with where Ryan is likely to go as the next chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee:

In his most recent budget, Ryan emphasized his support for a tax reform package that would, among other things, reduce the current seven tax brackets to two, at 25 and 10 percent rates. The dual-bracket structure has long been the dream goal of conservative, supply-side tax reform. It would not just simplify the code, a goal even liberals share. It would also reduce rates on the wealthy. But such a plan could not be revenue-neutral without sharply increasing middle class taxes. It’s a mathematical certainty.

And such a plan is definitely at odds with the reformicons’ stated concern that the conservative movement’s fiscal policies are in danger of fatally alienating middle-class voters, and even the GOP’s critical white working class constituency.

It’s worth remembering, of course, that Ryan’s hardly the only ambitious GOP pol who’s likely to prefer praise from the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial board than from the reformicon ranks. So it’s hardly a good betting proposition that the reformers’ fiscal priorities will find champions among the 2016 GOP presidential field, even if Marco Rubio regains his pre-immigration-reform standing.

But for the moment, it’s refreshing to see that Ryan looks more and more like a standard GOP business hack with an unhealthy addiction to Ayn Rand novels, and less and less like the Brains of the GOP. He’s certainly overdrawn at the intellectual credit bank.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.