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Ryan's corporatist past gives way to populist talk

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Politics,Timothy P. Carney,Campaign 2012,Politics Digest

When President Bush demanded bailouts of Wall Street and Detroit in late 2008, most Republicans said no. Today in the U.S. House there are only six Republicans who voted yes on the auto bailout and both bank bailout votes. One of those congressmen is Paul Ryan.

Today Ryan is an outspoken and eloquent critic of crony capitalism and business-government collusion. Under President Obama, Ryan even has a voting record to match. Ryan certainly didn't come up as a free-market populist, but he may have converted.

In the Bush era, Republicans spoke of free markets and limited government, but they regularly expanded the government when Big Business asked them to. And Paul Ryan consistently took the Big Business-Big Government side.

Ryan supported the Export-Import Bank, a federal agency that exists to subsidize U.S. manufacturers with taxpayer-backed financing. The free-market rump of the GOP voted to kill the agency in 2002, but Ryan supported reauthorization on the floor.

The GOP teamed up with the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries in 2003 to expand Medicare to cover prescription drugs. Again, conservatives in the party dissented, and again, Ryan supported the corporate-welfare legislation.

The bailouts of Wall Street and Detroit were the pinnacle of Bush-era corporatism, and Bush couldn't even bring most of his party along with him. Ryan didn't simply back the bailout of Wall Street, he helped lead the bailout charge.

Ryan passionately pleaded on the floor for his fellow Republicans to join him. While two-thirds of his party mates voted no on the first bank bailout vote, Ryan voted with the banks -- and he did so again a few days later when the House finally passed the Troubled Asset Relief Program on the strength of Democratic votes.

Come December, Ryan was one of only 32 House Republicans who voted to bail out General Motors and Chrysler.

Only 16 House Republicans voted aye on all three bailout votes in late 2008. Two of them, Ray LaHood and John McHugh, now serve in the Obama administration. Six of the 16 are now lobbyists -- some with banks as clients. Six members of Team Bailout remain in the House, including Ryan.

Those numbers show Ryan wasn't merely being a team player when he voted for corporate welfare -- he was staking out his own turf: more pro-business than pro-market.

After the bailout bonanza, though, something happened to Ryan.

"Down with Big Business" was the headline of Ryan's December 2009 op-ed in Forbes, channeling a 1979 Wall Street Journal editorial with the same headline.

Citing industry's direct role in crafting Obamacare, and the (predictable) expansion of the bailout as a gift to banks, Ryan in that article aptly assessed the lay of the land: "Big businesses' frenzied political dealings are not driven by party or ideology, but rather by zero-sum thinking in which their gain must come from a competitor's loss."

"The problem we have had as a party," Ryan told National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru in 2010, "is we have often confused being pro-market with being pro-business."

When Ryan spoke of tax reform this year, he derided "[s]pecial interest loopholes, which end up rewarding a few while raising taxes on the many." Using the tax code to pick winners and losers, he said, "stifle[s] that entrepreneur who has an idea, who might not have connections."

Ryan's post-Bush voting record has often followed his rhetoric. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for instance, dinged Ryan in its 2009 congressional scorecard for his votes against solar subsidies, tourism subsidies and "Advanced Vehicle Technology" subsidies.

And this May, Ryan went against the chamber, the manufacturing lobby, his party leadership and most House Republicans when he voted against reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank -- a reversal from 10 years ago.

The first policy fight Obama picked with Ryan since he joined the ticket puts Obama, as usual, on the side of corporate welfare and Ryan on the side of free markets. Obama in Iowa knocked Ryan for opposing the pork-laden farm bill, which extends the sugar program, perhaps the least defensible bit of corporate-welfare policy in America.

There's plenty of reason, though, to doubt Ryan has kicked his corporatist ways. He got a 100 percent score from the chamber in 2011, while more conservative members voted against the chamber at least two times. In the last couple of years, Ryan has also become a top GOP fundraiser, with Wall Street his biggest source of campaign cash.

Given Obama's penchant for industrial policy, bailouts and handouts, Republicans could make crony capitalism and corporatism a major issue this fall, and run under the banner of free-market populism -- as long as Ryan makes a clean break with his past.

Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.

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