Democrats have always thought of Paul Ryan as a friendly foil.
Long before he became speaker of the House, Ryan was the face of conservative policy in Congress, and he had earned the respect of President Obama and leading Democrats on Capitol Hill for, if nothing else, putting forward serious ideas and having the political courage to stand by them.
Respect, yes. But not fear.
Ryan may have been young, smart, and telegenic, yet Democrats never felt he posed a real threat for the simple reason that his policies were toxic to a majority of American voters. Partially privatizing Medicare. Block-granting Medicaid. More tax cuts for the wealthy. Steep reductions in discretionary spending. Every year, Ryan would release his annual budget proposal with fanfare, and every year Democrats relished the opportunity to eviscerate it in television ads (which only worked to a limited degree).
Now as speaker, however, Ryan is mounting a new policy push on an issue Democrats have owned for decades: poverty. The Wisconsin Republican has been developing his own anti-poverty agenda for years, believing that the maze of federal programs—and trillions in associated spending—that date back to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society have, on the whole, failed to significantly reduce the ranks of the nation’s poor. As the Republican budget chief in 2014, he released a 200-page audit of federal anti-poverty programs. (Spoiler: It was not glowing.) And since his elevation to the top job last year, Ryan has made combating poverty and increasing upward mobility one of the six pillars of House Republican policy in 2016. He has even tried to focus the party’s presidential hopefuls on the issue, though as Michelle Cottle wrote last month, it didn’t really take.