The Magazine

To Run or Not to Run

That is Paul Ryan’s question.

Aug 29, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 46 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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For months the Republican presidential campaign has been a sleepy affair. The biggest news was that one supposedly top candidate had refused to criticize the frontrunner. Riveting.

Ryan Cartoon

Thomas Fluharty

The last week changed all of that. Michele Bachmann, once regarded as a sideshow candidate, won the Iowa straw poll, narrowly beating Ron Paul, still regarded as a sideshow candidate. Then would-be contender Tim Pawlenty dropped out. And whatever momentum Bachmann might have gained was halted by the announcement of Texas governor Rick Perry, who not only emerged as a first-tier candidate but is leading in at least one national poll.

Images from the campaign suddenly dominated television newscasts. Perry demonstrated his considerable skills in retail politics. Frontrunner Mitt Romney, whose team had anticipated just such a conservative surge, kept his attention on Barack Obama, whose own campaign swing through the all-important Midwest was all politics, despite the laughable claims of the White House to the contrary.

But some of the most interesting developments last week took place away from the cameras in the solitude of the Rocky Mountains, where Wisconsin representative Paul Ryan consulted with friends and family about whether he should join the race. Ryan has been quietly looking at a bid for nearly three months, since Indiana governor Mitch Daniels called him to say he wasn’t running. But that consideration took a serious turn over the past two weeks, following a phone call with New Jersey governor Chris Christie in early August.

Ryan and Christie spoke for nearly an hour about the presidential race, according to four sources briefed on the conversation. The two men shared a central concern: The Republican field is not addressing the debt crisis with anything beyond platitudes.

Ryan, on the other hand, is the author of the detailed “Path to Prosperity” budget that passed the House last spring. His plan proposes structural reform to ensure the long-term viability of Medicare and other entitlements.

Christie has echoed Ryan’s concerns. In February, he gave a tough speech at the American Enterprise Institute, chastising Republicans for their timidity on entitlement reform and spending. “Let me suggest to you that my children’s future and your children’s future is more important than some political strategy. .  .  . We need to say these things and we need to say them out loud. When we say we’re cutting spending, when we say everything is on the table, when we say we mean entitlement programs, we should be specific,” Christie lectured. “Here is the truth that no one is talking about: You’re going to have to raise the retirement age for Social Security. .  .  . We have to reform Medicare because it costs too much and it is going to bankrupt us. .  .  . And we have to fix Medicaid because it’s not only bankrupting the federal government, it’s bankrupting every state government. There you go. If we’re not honest about these things, on the state level about pensions and benefits and on the federal level about Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, we are on the path to ruin.”

Although the two men have not been especially close personally, their conversation about the campaign was blunt, and they agreed on a central point: If these issues are to get the kind of attention they deserve, one of the two men will have to run. One source called it a de facto pact, but another described it as a more informal understanding. Christie told Ryan what he has (usually) told others: He does not want to run.

The conversation focused Ryan’s thinking—making clear to him that if the big issues were to be raised in the presidential race, he would need to raise them himself. Ryan shared his thinking in an August 12 interview with Milwaukee talk radio host Charlie Sykes, the day after the GOP debate in Iowa.

“Looking at the Republican field right now,” said Sykes, “are you confident that the candidates there are able to articulate the issues of the debt and the deficit and the need to reform entitlements in the way that you want to see done?”

Ryan laughed. “Why did you ask me that?”

“You know exactly why I asked you that question.”

“I know. We’ll see. I didn’t see it last night. I haven’t seen it to date. We’ll see. People’s campaigns evolve—they get better. So we’ll see.”

Ryan then broadened his comments. “Look, the way I see 2012—we owe it to the country to let them choose the path they want our country to take. And I just have yet to see a strong and principled articulation of the kind of limited government, opportunity society path that we would provide as an alternative to the Obama cradle-to-grave welfare state.”

Sykes pressed him: “Do you think that it is absolutely essential that there be a Republican candidate who is able to articulate—”

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