Commentary Magazine


Ryan and Liberal Welfare-State Amnesia

At first it seemed like just a minor kerfuffle, the sort of thing that happens to every politician and soon fades away. Paul Ryan says something on a talk show. Liberals howl. Conservatives defend. And a couple of days later nobody even remembers what it was about. But now I’m convinced it’s about something bigger than the normal inside-baseball political fights. What’s at stake is an attempt to reinstate the old shibboleths that were the foundation of the liberal welfare state that was buried when President Bill Clinton said the era of big government was over and then signed a historic welfare reform act into law.

I’m referring, of course, to the dustup that ensued after the chair of the House Budget Committee said the following on Bill Bennett’s “Morning in America” radio show:

We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.

That provoked the left to blast him as a racist using “dog whistle” politics in which “inner cities” means black. But as I pointed out on Friday, the faux outrage being ginned up against Ryan flew in the face of just about everything we had learned about the role that family breakdowns and cultural problems have played in creating and perpetuating poverty. In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a recognition that one of the unintended consequences of the creation of the welfare state was the way it had produced a near-permanent underclass in our cities that no amount of government largesse seemed capable of ameliorating. As I noted last week, the backlash against Ryan seemed rooted in forgetting everything Daniel Patrick Moynihan taught us about the subject.

But rather than tailing off after a day as I anticipated, the assault on Ryan seems to be growing. In the last three days, we’ve seen a new round of attacks from even more prominent sources such as this hit piece from Politico Magazine and a 700-word-long rant from (as the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto likes to call him) “former Enron advisor” Paul Krugman in the New York Times. Yet rather than this being a case of the left simply seeking to damage a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate, what is going on is something much bigger. The discussion about “income inequality” was intended to change the subject from ObamaCare and to breathe some life into the lame-duck Obama presidency but it is now morphing into something far more ambitious: erasing the last half-century of debate about the problems of the welfare state.

Ryan’s problem is not just that he tripped over the way some on the left have tried to turn the use of the phrase “inner cities” into a code word for racist incitement. The newly energized left wing of the Democratic Party wants something far bigger than to delegitimize the intellectual leader of the Republican congressional caucus. What they want is to take us back to those heady days of the 1960s before Moynihan’s report on the black family started to strip away the veneer of good intentions that defended government policies that hurt the poor far more than it helped them.

The point is, absent the buzz words about inner cities, you’d have to have spent the last 50 years trapped in some kind of time warp in order to think there was anything even vaguely controversial about the notion that cultural problems play a huge role in creating poverty. To his credit, Andrew Sullivan concedes as much when he defended Ryan from attacks by fellow liberals. Sullivan gets bogged down in a defense of Charles Murray’s seminal book Losing Ground and the question of various ethnic groups’ IQ numbers.

But the argument here is far more basic than such esoteric intellectual debates. The talk about income inequality isn’t only an attempt to associate Republicans with their traditional allies in big business and reposition Democrat elites as the friend of the working class. The goal of resurgent liberalism is also to reboot discussions about poverty in such a way as to ignore decades of research and debate about the ways in which dependency on the government breeds unemployment and multi-generational families mired in poverty.

That’s why the need for pushback on the slurs aimed at Ryan is so important. For decades, fear of telling the truth about the social pathologies bred by big government was assumed to be a permanent obstacle that would prevent change. The racism canard constituted the third rail of American politics that even reform-minded Republicans feared to touch. But by the ’90s, even many liberals understood the system was unsustainable. The passage of welfare reform was an acknowledgement on the part of Democrats that New Deal and Great Society liberalism had flaws that could no longer be ignored. But the shift left under Obama has given some liberals the belief that they can recreate the politics of the past and undo everything Moynihan and Clinton had done to change the national conversation about welfare and poverty. Instead of taking into account the way government policies create havoc for society and the poor, we may go back to the old liberal shibboleths that assume that throwing more money at a problem is the only solution and that the state can do no wrong.

What is at stake here is something far bigger than Paul Ryan’s political prospects. The future of generations of poor Americans trapped by government dependency hangs in the balance if the amnesia about the welfare state that is the foundation of the attacks on Ryan spread. Fair-minded Democrats who remember the cost to the country and to the poor, including so many minority families from an unrestrained welfare state, need to join with conservatives and restore some sanity as well as historical memory to this debate.

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