THE OPPORTUNITY AGENDA
Politics Cannot Be The Art of Ignoring Everyday Problems
It’s hard to imagine now but some time in 2017, politicians will begin talking about issues, ideas, problems, and solutions again. If Hillary Clinton is elected President, underneath the omnipresent cloud of corruption will emerge a series of talking points about “strengthening the middle class” and that will set off a series of counterpoints from Republicans that might range anywhere from cries of “socialism!” to overwrought worries about the cost of government.
All the while, that middle class that needed “strengthening” sees no relief amidst all the shouting.
If current trends hold, the Republicans will manage to retain control of the House of Representatives and if they do, it’s expected they will press forward with A Better Way as their agenda for real change in American communities. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, the pioneer of A Better Way, will no doubt come before the microphones and the cameras to announce “in the war on poverty, poverty’s winning.” If re-elected, Marco Rubio, the Republican Senator from Florida, will proclaim his efforts as “saving the American Dream.” And Senator Tim Scott (R) of South Carolina, who grew up in poverty, will join them in an effort to change conservative ideas on fighting poverty and the extraordinary promise of “the American Idea.” I’ve been personally inspired by their work and others and they’re sincere servants of faith of good will, but I’ve come to realize it’s only a start.
And with President Clinton, or President Trump, it’s not likely any of their ideas will gain traction, that any of their priorities could become the centerpiece of a White House effort. They all know that even their least ambitious proposals will only be advanced by winning the White House themselves or as part of a winning governing coalition —what I call a New Conservative Establishment.
But in the meantime there’s no relief, poverty keeps winning, and the American Dream goes unsaved.
This country has real problems. Individuals and families are struggling, and it doesn’t seem like our political system is capable of providing any relief. Worse, it increasingly seems like the political system is ignoring the very real pressures facing Americans every day. Lost in the back-and-forth of our political tribal war is a focus on the pressures facing Americans struggling to improve their lives.
Speaker Ryan knows this firsthand. He never thought he’d be Speaker of the House at this stage in his life and instead began to chart a different pathway for himself, traveling the country with a mentor, Robert L. Woodson, and visiting struggling Americans to see firsthand how people live in communities of widespread suffering. This journey, documented in The Comeback series from Opportunity Lives, a nonprofit created by former Capitol Hill staffers, has taken Speaker Ryan on a whirlwind of exposure to the ills facing poverty-afflicted communities across the country. It’s an inspiring portrayal of regular people fallen on hard times rising to overcome the challenges in their lives including addiction to hard drugs, gang warfare, and overall suffering and it’s impossible not to notice how the many vignettes start to paint a picture of the surrounding towns and cities. Thankfully, the series frames each individual success as emblematic of a healing process that can save entire communities. And ideas such as hiring ministers to preach the values of hard work to youths who would otherwise grow up idolizing thugs and criminals have tremendous value. But Speaker Ryan is careful to note that it’s hard to fathom that for every life saved there are many more voices that go unheard, stories that end in tragedy instead of triumph.
“For all the partisan fanfare that awaits, Ryan does not exude the confidence of a man who has it all figured out. His immersion into a world that few in the D.C. political class dare to visit has left him humbled and a bit unnerved — uniquely aware of the scale of his project, and not entirely certain of the way forward.”
When McCay Coppins of Buzzfeed wrote that, Paul Ryan was simply Chairman of the Budget Committee and the 2012 Vice Presidential nominee was a top prospect for the next Republican nomination for President. He would decline to run and ultimately earn the title of Speaker of the House through a concerted draft campaign in the fall of 2015.
Speaker Ryan isn’t spending his summer recess focused on Wisconsin or the presidential race. He’s paying attention to West Virginia, witnessing the horrors of babies born with an addiction to opiates, something the House of Representatives is aiming to address. He’s expected to visit Florida to get a first-person view of the fight against the Zika virus. And he’ll be returning to some of the communities he’s visited before for an update on their community-and-church-based efforts to fight the public crisis of cyclical poverty.
Humbled and unnerved as ever, in 2016, Speaker Ryan finds himself locked in a type of internecine warfare with the Republican nominee and his supporters, and his own sense of politics and policy and as a key to establishing confidence in American principles.
Ryan, always a budget hawk, has used his experience to guide an anti-poverty agenda that focuses primarily on restructuring the administration of modern welfare so that it is need-based, targeted for individuals and families, and encourages education and employment. Derided as a “poverty prophet” and a fiercely minimal-government partisan with an open disdain for the civil rights apparatus in this country, Woodson’s role has been to encourage Paul, through living examples, to see how redirecting policies from welfare to a sustainable set of values better serves those striving to escape poverty. To be clear, there is no welfare program with as much promise as the independence that comes with gainful employment. Speaker Ryan is entirely right to call for replacing the war on poverty with a pledge to empowerment and that is why there’s a lot of work ahead.
First, the American people aren’t buying it yet. Such an agenda isn’t getting the type of attention it normally would because of the, shall-we-say, unique nature of the presidential election. But, moreover, Speaker Ryan has a broader image as more of an accountant since his career is that of a young staffer-turned-Representative and Chairman of the Budget and the Ways and Means Committees. A self-professed deficit hawk, he’s been portrayed as a heartless Ayn Rand enthusiast out to gut the entire welfare state to extend more tax breaks to the millionaires that fund the Republican Party. He has done more than perhaps anyone to cultivate this posture as he’s used charts, spreadsheets, and detailed budgets to propose a model of fiscal restraint that would eventually balance the federal budget by 2042. And he was brought on board as Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012 to further entrench the Republican Party’s commitment to avoid “ducking these tough issues” such as the nightmare that is the federal balance sheet. For many conservatives, the Romney/Ryan loss signaled the end of political will to introduce a scintilla of respect for mathematics in Washington D.C. And for many liberals, that is a very welcome loss, for it was Ryan that originally captivated Republican colleagues and voters by thoroughly dismantling the flim-flammery of their health care reform bill and launching a template for a total overhaul of the federal budget.
To many, Paul Ryan has been the embodiment of a cold, calculating conservativism that cares more about numbers on spreadsheets than the lives they represent. He is trying to change that, and it needs changing. If this is how most people come to view American conservatism, it will not find the room to grow, to reach beyond the true believers, to win more contested elections, and provide the relief Americans so desperately need and will be denied as they race into the open arms of demagogues, ideologues, and panderers. Members of my generation will find us old-fashioned and out-of-touch and the Americans watching helplessly as their country declines will grow more cynical and distrusting.
So it’s no wonder Speaker Ryan, Senator Rubio, and their colleagues have taken the first step toward reform by going to the heart of the problem, seeing for themselves and listening, learning about what is going on beyond the beltway. With the media focused elsewhere, the groundwork for a modern conservative reform agenda is being formulated in plain sight from the solutions and stories found at street level. In churches and charities across America, lives are turning around, but is it enough?
Even knowing all this, it’s easy to succumb to the feeling that “politics” is simply the art of misdirecting people’s attention from the pressures of modern society. Just how much would “shifting resources” from a top-down anti-poverty program to “a more targeted subsidy for individuals and families” change the lives of those who depend on such assistance? Is “jobs” really the only answer? How much does prayer and sermonizing transform the lives of junkies and former gang members? Paul Ryan sincerely cares about fighting poverty but what if people don’t see that because the agenda as it is now is still insufficient?
In that case, we need to do more, even more, as much more as needed to truly earn the trust we seek and a mandate to make our efforts about more than our politics, to make it truly worthwhile public service.
Our goal should be Equal Opportunity For All.
The conservative approach to the economy is in all ways limited: limited taxation, limited regulation, limited legal action — a tax and a regulatory structure that provides nothing more than an environment for the private sector to thrive. We aim to limit government so that there are no limits to what civil society can accomplish. Conservative economic reform consists of policies that encourage innovation, connectedness, and a responsibility to deliver for consumers. This means we prefer regulation limited to providing “transparency” for consumers, a catch-all phrase that might as well invite the predatory practices that only add to the financial pressures of struggling American households. And that blind spot has provided all the room necessary for “progressive” champions to promise them the ever-seductive protection of big government.
Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has made it her primary mission to pursue less limited regulations to protect consumers of financial products such as mortgages, used car loans, credit cards, and payday loans. The problem is that Warren’s pet project, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), largely operates as an independent government agency free from congressional oversight and already the first public servants hired to write the regulations have cashed their checks at the very financial institutions they were supposed to be regulating. The Washington Favor Factory has a direct route to Wall Street and vice versa. And that is just one bureau; the worst that can be said of the CFPB is that it acts exactly like the entire regulatory underbelly of Washington and it’s the physical embodiment of the mentality behind the legislation that spawned it, a financial “reform” law known as Dodd-Frank.
That, then, becomes our opportunity to accost this cronyism and advocate real advancements in efforts to protect Americans that are often the targets of schemes and scams, mostly those living in poverty with low credit or no credit established. That is definitely going to happen on the ground level — community by community, church by church, individual by individual, family by family.
Independent financial consultants inserted into communities that work to steer people away from harmful financial arrangements aren’t a new pursuit for community organizers but there exists a gap between this need and those that can field it. It’s a skill that can be taught in hour-long classes at nights and on weekends that would itself unlock employment within minority communities. It’s a position that would be best served by people who speak the language, who might have had to declare bankruptcy themselves, or know a close friend or family member drowning in debt and hard choices. But guiding people away from scams is an incredibly valuable public service, and it could be packaged in a way that is useful for one-on-one counseling as well as lectures and sessions that could be given in church and streamed online. It would be entirely worthwhile to funnel resources toward this project.
And it would be far more effective and longer-lasting than a regulation written in Washington and twisted past recognition by legal battles and layer after layer of red tape. 440,000 regulations and counting have been enacted since Barack Obama’s first day in office — there is no “transparency” or “protection” when the rules are constantly changing. That should be our answer to the calls for more government regulation that might, might address subprime loans, temporarily.
And “jobs” isn’t a sufficient answer either, not yet.
While politicians are crowing about the jobs of yesterday, blaming high unemployment on foreigners, regulations, and taxes, the people in depressed communities would be the first to note that high unemployment has almost nothing owed to these factors. Rather, it is that the social capital does not exist for the people in these communities to pursue the jobs that would offer them a way out. Worse, in many places, the populace lacks the skills and the capability to get and maintain steady work. They try, and public transportation is a necessity but it often requires more time, more patience, than a single mother or father can endure. The children in these cases are left to fend for themselves in failing schools or left in the care of a grandparent. Maintaining a job in this environment is not easy so while it is best to connect government assistance to steady employment, there is more we have to do to bring jobs within reach of those facing difficulties today.
A Better Way is premised on the principle that legislation should serve to better connect local leaders to the bureaucracies focused on fighting poverty and measuring effectiveness based on the results. Coupled with reforms to encourage able-bodied Americans to seek alternatives to government assistance, this would provide the basis for replacing poverty with meaningful employment and vocational training. Next, connecting those seeking work opportunities with apprenticeships, scholarships to vocational schools, and entry-level work will invigorate struggling communities from both the top-down and the bottom-up.
An arrangement to reduce licensing requirements for non-hazardous occupations would immediately liberate businesses and the jobless to seek opportunities beyond employer-employee contracts. Self-employment befits a nation of independent workers and empowers every American to pursue their dreams. We should embrace this exciting opportunity, without severing the promises of hard work and financial responsibility.
The goal, ultimately, is to end cyclical poverty by creating an easy-to-access working class through an abundance of jobs that pay well so that workers can provide for their families, enjoy time to unwind, save for their retirements, and pay for their children’s education so that they will grow up and earn even more than their parents, ending the cycle.
“The fundamental challenge before us is to find an appropriate and sustainable role for government in closing this gap between the dreams of millions of Americans and the opportunities they have to realize them.” — Marco Rubio
Rubio is also fond of saying “you can’t have a strong country without strong people and you can’t have strong people without strong values.” And conservatives, we know these values. While the media hears “values” as a throwback to eras long past, we know that principles are unchanging and values don’t evolve over time. Being an attentive parent, partner, or spouse, having integrity in your work and enjoying it every day, saving responsibly, and avoiding debt are timeless values, universal standards that every citizen comprehends. It’s not that most struggling Americans don’t understand or ignore these values; it’s that the pressure to succeed becomes unbearable amidst the all the years of hardship. And the opportunities are few and far between. Once trapped in debt, earning more, saving more, and looking for better jobs is usually out of the question.
One of the reasons why low-income Americans don’t trust that others understand their plight is because we haven’t lived their lives. Of course, we can’t. What most Americans seek instead from their elected leaders is an affirmation of their own values. It’s our duty to show them we care, to stay involved long past the elections, to listen and learn, to understand, and to try and advance an agenda that works for everyone, especially those that need the most help.
And this is not to suggest that federal efforts are entirely unwarranted. In fact, as the progressives insist that the answer is always bigger, more powerful government bureaucracy, the opportunity is ripe for policies that balance public needs with private life, in other words, policies that build on the principles of entrepreneurial capitalism, not replace them, policies that relieve pressures on civil society. There’s no better place to look than the conservative reform agenda being advanced by Senator Mike Lee, Senator Marco Rubio, Senator Tim Scott, Speaker Paul Ryan, and the “reformicons” operating out of National Affairs, The National Review Institute, Woodson’s own Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, John Miller’s Conservative Reform Network, and countless think tanks, charities, and church groups around the country. Contrary to media narratives, conservatives and community leaders are studying and proposing solutions to everything from equal pay for equal work, to family leave, and tax relief for the working class, affordable health care, college education, combating chronic homelessness, school choice, and criminal justice.
Because the approach matters.
This can’t be a top-down effort with ambitious pols jumping over one another to offer the most next most compelling idea to enthrall the voters in an early primary state. Lost in all the political gamesmanship was the very nature of Ryan’s journey, that the man who would become third in line for the presidency, that would be expected to use his summer recess fundraising at the posh homes of millionaires to help save his embattled colleagues, is instead traveling, often alone, to prenatal care facilities in West Virginia and waiting rooms in southern Florida, a rehab center in San Antonio, and a church in Cleveland as part of his mission to save the country he loves however he can.
That the Speaker of the House is shunning the spotlight and the fundraising circuit to spend time with Americans overcoming addiction to heroin, young people being tasked with helping their neighbors avoid a life of incarceration, expectant mothers worried that their unborn baby is going to be born with abnormalities, people who believe they’ve already lost the lottery of life. This is a testament to his faith and his service. To hear Paul Ryan tell it, though, being blessed with this opportunity to serve is exactly the catalyst for doing everything possible to make sure it’s all worthwhile.
After Coppins’ piece came out and The Comeback preceded the release of the House Republicans’ agenda, the usual suspects scoffed that the Speaker was obviously trying to rebrand himself, that of course he was doing it to save his political future, to position himself for a run at the presidency should the nominee fail in November as expected. When asked about all that, Speaker Ryan turned instead to the pastor-director of Beyond the Walls and said “you shall know them by the fruits of their labor.”
Indeed we shall.
So it falls to us, the principled conservatives of America, to develop and promulgate this much, much better approach to meeting the everyday needs of our fellow Americans. Figure out what works to cure poverty and share it, and when there is a federal policy, to insist that it properly balances federal assistance with our timeless principles. Speaker Ryan and Senator Rubio call this “civil society”, but it was most admirably expressed by George Bush Sr. as “a thousands points of light.” But the night sky is still dark and all of society needs to be touched by the illumination of our efforts. To quote another Ryan mentor, Rep. Jack Kemp: “the American society as a whole can never achieve the outer- reaches of its potential so long as it tolerates the inner cities of despair.” And, especially after this election, this is the best opportunity yet to answer the question that rests before us now: who are we, as Americans?
“What’s so amazing about this country is it’s the only one founded on an idea, and the idea of this country, which has a lot of flaws and has needed a lot of work is that the condition of your birth doesn’t determine the outcome of your life. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you came from, you can be who you want to be. We just want to learn so that we can get behind what works.” — Speaker Paul Ryan
We haven’t always made it clear that our belief in the American Idea is not a nostalgic, idealistic reassertion of old-fashioned values but instead a commitment to always be listening, always be learning, always trying to empower as many Americans as possible to pursue their loftiest goals — equal opportunity for all to succeed.
That is who we are, who conservatives ought to show we are. That is what it means to have the highest elected official in the party praying with addicts and listening to first heartbeats. It’s time to show the world what real conservatism looks like, what politics and public service is all about. As the progressive Democrats insist that America should turn our gaze to the outstretched arm of government, it’s our responsibility to ask that Americans look to their neighbors, their churches, the charities in their communities, confident that their elected officials are looking to them to tackle this great challenge of our time.
The Speaker knows it, and it’s up to us to show it, anywhere and everywhere, the biggest and best, most effective movement ever, but it is a labor. It takes hard work, serious commitment, but with the right approach, for a righteous cause.
Solutions are not merely good policies, but the result of free people taking initiative and seizing opportunities to improve their lives and the lives of those around them.
— Opportunity Lives