“This is a struggle for the soul of … the party,” says Arthur Brooks, the polymath president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute and a Ryan ally. (That conflict became even more vivid after South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who was invited partly by Ryan, used her response to President Obama’s State of the Union this week to pointedly rebuke Trump.)
The Columbia forum was sponsored by the Jack Kemp Foundation, which honors the late Republican House member who helped design Ronald Reagan’s supply-side tax cuts, but became best known for pushing his party to court voters of color with conservative responses to expanding opportunity. At the event, Ryan (who considers Kemp his mentor) and South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott led GOP presidential contenders Bush, Rubio, John Kasich, Chris Christie, Ben Carson, and Mike Huckabee through detailed discussions of their ideas to reduce poverty and invigorate the economy. The tone was more PBS than Fox News Channel. Other than a Christie condemnation of teachers’ unions, no one raised their voice.
The ideas the group debated included converting more federal anti-poverty programs into state block grants; expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit that supports the working poor, promoting charter schools, criminal-justice reform, and rethinking treatment for drug addicts. Phrases such as “outcome-based measures” and “middle-skilled jobs” drew knowing nods.
Democrats find much to criticize in these specific proposals. Advocates for the poor argue that Ryan’s plans to block-grant anti-poverty programs such as food stamps would produce large spending cuts. They note that his determination to repeal President Obama’s health care law would withdraw coverage from millions of working-poor Americans.
But Republican willingness to engage on problems like poverty and criminal justice reform at least provides the basis for bipartisan debate and negotiation. Politically, the forum reflected the belief of many conservative policy intellectuals that the party can win back the White House only by proving it has concrete responses that extend beyond tax cuts to the economic challenges most Americans face. “Conservatives are bringing their ‘A-game’ to fighting poverty,” Ryan declared at one point. Later he added: “What you are learning today is we are not just an opposition party, we are a proposition party.”
But that hasn’t been remotely true in the GOP presidential race. None of the ideas discussed at the forum have mattered much in the contest. At Trump’s appearance in Rock Hill, the loudest applause came for things he said he would fight, including the common-core educational standards, new gun-control measures, imports from Japan or China, undocumented immigrants from Mexico, and, pointedly, the budget agreement that Ryan negotiated with Obama. Trump drew a primal roar from the crowd when he promised to repeal Obama’s health care law.