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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
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Ryan’s efforts to keep things civil are not reciprocated. As he takes questions from the crowd, his opponents get louder. Finally, perhaps in an effort to mollify the Zerban supporters, Ryan calls on one of them. After a brief speech about the value of wind as an energy source and its benefits in Europe, she asks why state legislators aren’t doing more to produce wind. “Why aren’t we in Wisconsin getting on the bandwagon in this instead of blocking it?” Ryan temporarily resists the temptation to embarrass her, choosing instead to point out that there are federal incentives for alternative energy. “There is a wind production tax credit in the law, and it’s the only way to make it actually economically viable,” he begins, before the questioner shouts back at him. 

“I understand—I’m talking about Wisconsin! How about in Wisconsin?!” 

“I’m your federal representative. I don’t know what to tell you about your state government rules.” 

A man from the anti-Ryan group tries to help her. “You’re the state representative!” he shouts over Ryan’s answer.

Ryan remains calm. “I’m not your state representative. I’m your federal representative.” He ticks off a list of the state representatives and state senators who represent people in his district. The crowd isn’t having it. 

“You represent us in Washington, and this is about jobs!!” the original questioner shouts, to applause from her friends. 

Ryan tries again to satisfy them. “There is a federal policy for wind turbine production,” he begins.

“Not as big as the tax cuts for oil!!!” another woman shouts. 

The longer the session continues, the more aggressive Ryan’s opponents become. Inevitably, Ryan supporters begin to shout back at them on his behalf. Ryan admonishes both groups. “People, it doesn’t make sense to start yelling at each other,” he says. And moments later: “It doesn’t work if you yell at each other. It’s just not polite.” On four separate occasions, Ryan calls for civility, but he knows better than to expect it.

“They will organize protests, talking points—sometimes they try to shout you down and get dragged out by the police. That’s their goal—to get pulled out, to disrupt,” he says later, sitting in the back seat of a large black SUV lumbering across south-central Wisconsin five days before the Democratic gubernatorial recall primary. “Wherever there’s one of us—Scott Walker, Sean Duffy, Jim Sensenbrenner, [state representative] Robin Vos—doing something, they go and find it and protest and picket us. So it’s all about agitating, polarizing—sort of Alinsky stuff—conservatives and Republicans, because of these recalls, because of the presidential.”

The spate of recall elections in Wisconsin is now over. “The presidential” is upon us, and Paul Ryan is very much at the center of the debate that will consume a large part of the country for the next 16 weeks. 

One reason: Ryan is one of a small group of Republicans being vetted as a possible running mate for Mitt Romney. Very few people know exactly who is under consideration, and in most cases they’re not talking. But the consensus among Republicans I’ve talked to in recent weeks is that Ryan is getting serious consideration and that his vetting isn’t one of those satisfy-a-constituency looks that campaigns undertake just to leak. 

A second reason: Ryan’s budget proposal, with its bold entitlement reforms, has passed the House of Representatives twice and has been embraced, with few qualifications, by the Republican nominee. It is as close to a governing blueprint as has been offered by either party. And top Democrats and Republicans agree on one thing: The 2012 election cycle is likely to close with a fierce struggle over the implications of the Ryan budget and the direction it lays out for the country—something that is true regardless of whether Ryan is actually on the Republican ticket.

Few who have known him over the years would have predicted that Ryan would be at the center of this national debate. And just two years ago, Republican pollsters and strategists advised their candidates to seek distance from Ryan’s plan. But he is now the intellectual leader of the Republican party. And, at the risk of overstating the case, the outcome of the November elections may turn on whether his party can present and defend his ideas. 

Paul Ryan first came to Washington in 1990 as a college intern in the office of Wisconsin’s Republican senator Bob Kasten. In theory, Ryan was working for the foreign policy staff, but he spent much of his time in the mailroom. He was a hard worker, even on the unsexy stuff, and he was welcomed back the following summer to an internship on the Senate Small Business Committee, where Kasten was the ranking member.

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