Man with a Plan
How Paul Ryan became the intellectual leader of the Republican party
Jul 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 42 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
Paul Ryan has come to Kenosha to deliver bad news. It’s May 3, 2012, and the United States faces an imminent debt crisis. The federal government is spending too much. Entitlements are out of control. Social Security is going insolvent. Medicare is sucking up an ever-increasing chunk of our tax dollars. There are too many retirees and too few workers to support them. And both political parties are responsible for the unholy mess.
Ryan, the seven-term representative from Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District, speaks quickly, as if the coming collapse might happen in the middle of his remarks if he takes too much time. It’s a bracing message. He is saying, in effect, that the American experiment, our 236 extraordinary years of self-government, is on the verge of failure.
And yet Ryan is smiling. It’s not the phony grin of a politician seeking votes, or the half-smirk of a charlatan putting one over on a group of rubes. It’s a real smile—the eager smile of someone excited to share important news. Paul Ryan believes he has the solution to these problems. And after a long and often lonely fight to convince his fellow Republicans that they should be talking about these issues, Ryan is succeeding.
The town hall in Kenosha is Ryan’s third public meeting of the day. He begins his comments by urging those in the crowd to treat each other with respect in order to facilitate a good conversation based on an exchange of ideas. As he says this, supporters of Rob Zerban, the Democrat who will lose to Ryan in November, hold up bumper stickers in front of their faces and begin talking loudly amongst themselves. When a security guard asks them to stop, several of them, led by a woman who looked to be in her 50s, affix the bumper stickers to their foreheads, an act of defiance that they evidently find quite hilarious.
Members of the group—perhaps 20 people out of an audience of some 250 constituents—loudly snicker and sneer throughout Ryan’s meeting in what appears to be an effort to unnerve him. So there is much harrumphing when Ryan touts his entitlement reforms, heavy sighing when he laments the refusal of Senate Democrats to offer a budget of their own, and later shouting as he tries to answer questions.
Ryan’s opening remarks take 19 minutes. As if to confirm his well-deserved reputation as a budget wonk, his PowerPoint presentation—yes, a PowerPoint—includes a dizzying array of charts and graphs with debt-to-GDP ratios, revenue estimates, spending analyses, CBO projections, and a fair number of acronyms.
For years, this was the rap on Ryan. He talks in wonkspeak, the peculiar Washington dialect of budget mavens and Capitol Hillians who focus on fiscal policy, and his attempts to communicate the seriousness of our situation were compromised by his affinity for budget jargon.
This is no longer true. Ryan’s presentation is compelling and easy to understand. He begins with a description of the coming debt crisis, briefly describes Barack Obama’s failure to address it, and then moves quickly to the five principles of his budget proposal. He’s given this talk hundreds of times before—to town halls, business groups, small gatherings of congressional Republicans. The practice shows. At one point, Ryan pauses for effect before he clicks to a slide depicting the “current path” projection over a graph tracing the history of U.S. debt. When he finally unveils the red Everest-like mountain of coming debt the audience responds with a collective gasp.
His criticism of the White House is matter-of-fact, almost muted, his tone one of disappointment, not anger. The exception comes when Ryan shares the comment Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner made in testimony before Ryan’s committee earlier this spring: “You’re right to say we’re not coming before you today to say we have a definitive solution to that long-term problem. What we do know is we don’t like yours.” Ryan was angry at Geithner’s indifference to solving such serious problems and indignant at his flippant dismissal of Ryan’s work. Those feelings may have subsided, but they haven’t gone away. “People said things like that to me all the time in high school,” Ryan says to the crowd. It’s probably the toughest shot he’ll take at the administration all day.