New direction? Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
New direction? Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

I like to think I have a pretty good record of outrage at Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Then, of course, there’s Paul Krugman, who takes a back seat to no one in assailing what he calls Ryan’s “con jobs.”

But the real champ of Ryanology is Jonathan Chait, who happened to be on vacation last week when Ryan rolled out his new anti-poverty plan. Chait returned today with a typically strong offering, making a good point about whether individual states or the federal government are best suited to administer anti-poverty programs:

The trouble for Ryan is that, over the last few years, the United States has conducted a vast experiment that has proven his assumption wrong in the most horrifying way possible. Supreme Court Justice John Roberts allowed states to opt out of accepting Medicaid money to give health insurance to their poorest citizens. The money is, essentially, free. Washington would pay 90 percent of the cost of enrolling a person in Medicaid, and the remaining 10 percent would be made up, or more than made up, by the reduced cost of sick uninsured people showing up at the emergency room. In a display of almost fanatical indifference to the well-being of their most vulnerable citizens, nearly every Republican-controlled state government has eschewed this free money. Not only have state-level Republicans failed to display deep concern for the poor, they seem to actually enjoy subjecting them to intense physical and financial distress.

This also reminds me of a federalism joke, which I attribute to James Carville, though I have no idea where it originated. Let’s race from Disneyland to Disneyworld. You take the state roads; I'll take the federal roads.

Everyone, including Krugman and Chait, meanwhile, has pointed out that Ryan’s anti-poverty plan doesn’t remotely fit the parameters of the Ryan budget, which has Chait and others wondering how the two will be reconciled.

Reconciled? We’re talking about a politician who spent several years bashing President Barack Obama for cuts to Medicare that he himself supported. And the man whose gravest indictment of the president was Obama’s supposed rejection of the Simpson-Bowles commission plan. That plan was actually spiked well before it reached the president by Simpson-Bowles commission member . . . Paul Ryan.

So I’m not too worried about Ryan’s rhetorical skills for reconciling opposites.

Granted, governing would actually require him to make choices. Which gets back to why my initial reaction to Ryan’s anti-poverty speech was, despite my severe doubts about Ryan himself, guardedly positive. Policy experts analyzing Ryan’s anti-poverty agenda seem to think that there’s a viable policy here. Given that Ryan remains in some ways the heart of the House Republican conference, it’s good news if Ryan's contradictions include at least one policy containing genuine substance.

Of course, liberals aren’t going to endorse much of that substance. But a debate (or, even better, a legislative clash) between substantive liberal and substantive conservative policy proposals has the potential to produce something worthwhile. In any case, it would be a vast improvement over the symbolic posturing that consumes most of Congress' time.

Could it all be, as Krugman says, a con? Sure. Ryan doesn’t enter this discussion with much credibility. Republican efforts to pass appropriations based on his budget proved to be a fiasco. But perhaps he’s earned some credibility with his new proposal. Meanwhile, those of us concerned with the effects of a broken Republican Party (as opposed to those who simply want to enact liberal policy) should encourage any positive signs we see.

To contact the writer of this article: Jonathan Bernstein at Jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net.