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.
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.
Ryan reported to Cesar Conda, the Republican staff director. “Paul at age 19 was the exact same person he is today,” Conda recalls. “Earnest, personable, and hard-working, with an insatiable appetite for discussing policy ideas.” Ryan often popped his head into Conda’s office with questions about supply-side economics, interruptions that became so frequent Conda had to give Ryan books to keep him occupied. Among them: The Way the World Works, by one-time supply-side guru Jude Wanniski, and George Gilder’s seminal Wealth and Poverty. (Conda finally recovered his copy of Gilder in 2007, when he noticed it in Ryan’s office, heavily marked-up.)
Ryan returned to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, for his senior year, but before he graduated Conda called to notify him that an economist from the Small Business Committee would be leaving. He offered Ryan the job. “I hired him right out of college because I didn’t have the money to hire a more experienced staffer, and I knew he could do the job better than an experienced staffer,” says Conda, who is now chief of staff to Senator Marco Rubio.
Kasten lost in 1992, and Ryan, after helping Conda set up a small think tank, took a job working with Bill Bennett and Jack Kemp at their policy shop, Empower America. “Paul had a gift for anonymity,” says Bennett. “He was staff, and he thought of himself as staff. He was never the guy with his hand up all the time. It was never, ‘Call on me, teacher, call on me, teacher.’ ” Ryan worked closely with Kemp on economic issues and developed relationships with many of the conservative movement’s leading young thinkers.
In 1995, after two years in the think-tank world, Ryan headed back to Capitol Hill. Republicans had just taken Congress, and the House of Representatives under Speaker Newt Gingrich looked like the place where the battle of ideas would be joined. Ryan took a job as legislative director for freshman representative Sam Brownback of Kansas and immediately was given tremendous responsibility for someone who had just turned 25. Not only was Ryan the top legislative and policy aide in the congressman’s office, but Brownback also tasked Ryan with helping lead the policy team for a group called the New Federalists—some three dozen conservatives elected in 1994 devoted to scaling back the federal government. In the spirit of the Republican Revolution, the New Federalists advocated eliminating cabinet agencies and restructuring mandatory spending programs. Brownback says Ryan was the group’s driving intellectual force at the staff level.
Working entirely on policy, Ryan wasn’t involved in the daily push-and-pull of an elected member’s life. So when Brownback had to choose between his philosophy of limited government and the wishes of his constituents, Ryan was always a voice in favor of philosophical consistency. “He was very puritanical on economic policy,” says Brownback, who was elected governor of Kansas after serving one term in the House and two and a half in the Senate (he filled Bob Dole’s seat when Dole stepped down to run for president in 1996).
Brownback remembers a particularly heated debate over ethanol subsidies. “Paul was strongly opposed. He said, ‘This is wrong. We shouldn’t be using taxpayer dollars to support an industry,’ ” Brownback recalled. But other Brownback advisers, who were required to think about the political implications of his votes, including his chief of staff, argued just as strongly that a member from Kansas had to support ethanol. “I’m sitting here going—both of these guys are right,” recalls Brownback. The debate raged inside the new congressman’s inner circle for weeks, and he struggled to make up his mind. He wanted to side with Ryan but understood that the smarter political course was to back the subsidies. In the end, he got a break. “It was divine intervention,” he says. “Paul was gone on the day of the vote, so I voted for it.”
Brownback says that Ryan is just not a political guy. “It’s all policy to him,” Brownback says. “People don’t appreciate just how much of a policy guy Ryan is and how little of a politician he is.”
And yet when Representative Mark Neumann told Ryan he would be leaving his seat in Ryan’s home district to challenge Senator Russ Feingold, Ryan moved back home to Janesville to run. Ryan campaigned throughout the 1st District as a pragmatic conservative on what he called a “Paycheck Protection Plan” that included a promise to fight tax increases. Before Neumann won the seat in 1994, Democrat Les Aspin had held it from 1970 to 1993. Ryan beat Democrat Lydia Spottswood by an impressive 57-43 percent, despite the fact that national Democrats had made the seat one of their top 10 targets. Their optimism was understandable: Bill Clinton had carried the district twice, beating Bob Dole by 12 points two years before Ryan won the seat.
Ryan was regarded as a quiet policy wonk in the early stages of his congressional career—a respected conservative reformer but not necessarily someone his colleagues envisioned as a party leader. He brought to office the same interest in economics and spending that had driven him as a staffer and quickly acquired a greater appreciation of the trade-offs involved in pushing for free-market policy outcomes while also seeking to serve constituents.
In 2003, Ryan voted for adding a prescription-drug plan to Medicare—an incongruous vote for someone who has worked on entitlement reform for years and one that put him at odds with many of the conservative and libertarian policy types in whose world he lives. Ryan defends the vote, saying President Bush made it clear to him that he intended to sign one version of the bill or another: either a House version that included Ryan-sponsored amendments adding free-market reforms, or the Senate version without them. So Ryan unenthusiastically voted for the House bill. As he told journalist Philip Klein, “You don’t get to take the vote you want in Congress. Sometimes you have to take votes that you don’t want to take, but they’re the best of the two choices.”
Even as he found it more and more difficult to be a purist, Ryan never stopped studying. “When you’re sitting around shooting the breeze, you’d ask him, ‘What are you working on?’ ” recalls former representative Mark Green, who was elected with Ryan in 1998 and served with him in the House for eight years. “And Paul was always reading some obscure economics text.”
In November 2006, Republicans lost badly in midterm elections marked by broad discontent over the length and direction of the Iraq war and by Democratic charges that a “culture of corruption” had emerged under the leadership of congressional Republicans. Democrats took control of the House (picking up 31 seats) and the Senate, with majorities in both for the first time since 1994.
The party’s nadir would be Ryan’s opportunity. But he didn’t see that immediately. Shortly after the election, Ryan returned to Wisconsin, as he does every year for deer hunting season. But the results of the election were weighing on him. “After we got thumped by Pelosi in ’06, I was just sitting in my tree stand right after that election thinking about, you know, Why am I in Congress? What am I doing? Is it really serving a purpose?”
Ryan says he gave serious thought to quitting politics. Pelosi had introduced a new five-day work week for the House, which meant Ryan would have perhaps 36 hours a week with his family when Congress was in session: “I considered leaving. I was young, and I don’t want to be a lifetime politician. And I was thinking at the time: Is this worth it?”
After four days of hunting, and thinking, Ryan decided that if he stayed in Congress he would make a strong push for entitlement reform. He couldn’t do that unless he took a larger leadership role. When he returned to Washington, Ryan pushed John Boehner, the lame-duck House majority leader, to make him the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee. Ryan’s pitch to Boehner and the others on the selection panel was simple: “We’ve wandered off the path of fiscal responsibility, and we’ve got to get serious about getting back on it.” With Boehner’s backing, the panel of two dozen Republicans made Ryan its top Republican, passing over 12 others with more seniority.
The new position gave Ryan two things that would prove crucial to his grand plans: more staff and the ability to have the Congressional Budget Office run numbers for him. Ryan quickly set up a mini think tank inside Congress and got to work. “You can sketch out a vision on the back of a napkin,” he says, “but we had to have real policies with real numbers that would work.”
In early 2007, Ryan, who kept his seat on the House Ways and Means Committee, gave members of that panel a briefing at their regular Wednesday lunch on his plan to draft a Roadmap for America’s Future. He was met with a combination of skepticism and disbelief. “You could just hear the crickets. People were either running for cover or they didn’t understand it,” says Representative Devin Nunes of California. Nunes was the only one of Ryan’s colleagues to tell him after the meeting that he was on board and wanted to help.
Ryan was relieved to have an enthusiastic supporter but wanted Nunes to understand the possible implications of his support. Nunes recalls: “He probably said two dozen times: Are you sure you want to do this? Do you know what you’re getting into?”
Ryan would spend the next year developing and refining his Roadmap. He introduced it as legislation on May 21, 2008. “When I wrote this, I didn’t ask the leadership for permission,” says Ryan. “I figured, ask for forgiveness later and not permission first.”
“America faces a choice between two fiscal and economic futures,” Ryan wrote in the introduction.
In one, the Federal Government attempts to satisfy the multiple needs of a changing population, in a rapidly changing world, with outdated policies that demand ever-rising levels of public spending. The effort overwhelms the government’s capacities, and smothers the economy under crushing burdens of debt and high taxes. It is a future in which America’s best century is the past century.
The second future calls for a transformation—or more accurately, a restoration of the principles that created America’s freedom and prosperity. It is the path set out in a plan I have developed called A Roadmap for America’s Future.
Ryan won praise for having the courage to take on these big issues, but he had little actual support. The first version of the Roadmap had eight cosponsors. John McCain ignored it in the presidential election, and voters, by electing Barack Obama, moved America strongly in the opposite direction from the one Ryan had proposed. It would be a long year.
President Obama came to office in the midst of the financial crisis of late 2008 and immediately pushed Congress to pass a stimulus bill that would total some
$787 billion. The cost was only part of the problem. Ryan understood that the elevated spending levels would not be temporary, as promised. In his view, the first year of the Obama administration made his reforms both more necessary and more urgent.
On January 27, 2010, the day President Obama would deliver his State of the Union address, Ryan re-introduced an updated version of the Roadmap and explained his effort in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal:
The difference between the Roadmap and the Democrats’ approach could not be more clear. From the enactment of a $1 trillion “stimulus” last February to the current pass-at-all-costs government takeover of health care, the Democratic leadership has followed a “progressive” strategy that will take us closer to a tipping point past which most Americans receive more in government benefits than they pay in taxes—a European-style welfare state where double-digit unemployment becomes a way of life.
Americans don’t have to settle for this path of decline. There’s still time to choose a different future. That is what the Roadmap offers. It is based on a fundamentally different vision from the one now prevailing in Washington. It focuses the government on its proper role. It restrains government spending, and hence limits the size of government itself.
These contrasting visions would be on display two days later, when the president accepted an invitation from House Republicans to address their retreat in Baltimore. Ryan took the opportunity to confront Obama directly on his promise to freeze discretionary spending.
“Mr. President, first off, thanks for agreeing to accept our invitation here. It is a real pleasure and honor to have you with us here today,” Ryan said before introducing his wife and children to the president. He moved quickly to substance, inviting the president to endorse a constitutional line-item veto he’d proposed with then-senator Russ Feingold before getting specific on the budget.
I serve as the ranking member of the Budget Committee, so I want to talk a little budget, if you don’t mind. The spending bills that you have signed into law, the domestic and discretionary spending has been increased by 84 percent. You now want to freeze spending at this elevated level beginning next year. This means that total spending in your budget would grow at three hundredths of 1 percent less than otherwise. I would simply submit that we could do more and start now.
Obama responded directly:
I want to just push back a little bit on the underlying premise, about us increasing spending by 84 percent. Now,
look, I talked to Peter Orszag right before I came here, because I suspected I’d be hearing this—I’d be hearing this argument. The fact of the matter is that most of the increases in this year’s budget, this past year’s budget, were not as a consequence of policies that we initiated, but instead were built in as a consequence of the automatic stabilizers that kick in because of this enormous recession. So the increase in the budget for this past year was actually predicted before I was even sworn into office and had initiated any policies.
Obama went on to claim that anyone who had occupied the White House “would have seen those same increases” and that “a lot of these things happened automatically.”
He was wrong. Ryan gently corrected the president.
“I would simply say that automatic stabilizer spending is mandatory spending. The discretionary spending, the bills that Congress signs—that you sign into law—that has increased 84 percent. So . . .”
Obama, having been bested, moved quickly to end the exchange. “We’ll have a—we’ll have a longer debate on
the budget numbers there, all right?”
The exchange won Ryan additional respect from many of his colleagues and earned him lots of public attention. Kind words from Obama at the same gathering elevated Ryan further. The president joked that the media don’t cover civil exchanges. “You don’t get a lot of credit if I say, ‘You know, I think Paul Ryan’s a pretty sincere guy and has a beautiful family.’ Nobody’s going to run that in the newspapers, right?”
The crowd laughed. “And by the way, in case he’s going to get a Republican challenge, I didn’t mean it,” he said, directing his words to Ryan. “I don’t want to—I don’t want to hurt you, man.”
A month later the two men went at it again at the White House’s Health Care Summit at Blair House. Ryan challenged the Obama administration’s claim that the Democrats’ health care proposal would reduce the deficit. “This bill does not control costs,” he said. “This bill does not reduce deficits. Instead this bill adds a new health care entitlement at a time when we have no idea how to pay for the entitlements we already have.”
Ryan argued that the Congressional Budget Office, which scored the bill, could only judge what is put in front of it. “And what has been placed in front of them is a bill that is full of gimmicks and smoke and mirrors. Now, what do I mean when I say that? Well, first off, the bill has 10 years
of tax increases, about half a trillion dollars, with 10 years of Medicare cuts, about half a trillion dollars, to pay for 6 years of spending. Now, what’s the true 10-year cost of this bill in 10 years? That’s $2.3 trillion.”
“There really is a difference between us,” Ryan said. “And it’s basically this: We don’t think the government should be in control of all of this. We want people to be in control. And that, at the end of the day, is the big difference.”
Obama glared at Ryan throughout his remarks and didn’t answer Ryan’s specific challenges, saying he didn’t “want to get too bogged down,” before changing the subject.
If Ryan emerged from these two exchanges with the president with a higher profile than before, it didn’t translate into support from the GOP establishment for his reforms. Roadmap 2.0 earned only 14 cosponsors, and the Republican leadership in both House and Senate wanted little to do with entitlement reform, especially as the 2010 midterm elections approached.
In comments to reporters in late July 2010, Boehner, who would end up being among the GOP leaders most supportive of Ryan’s efforts, gave it only a half-hearted endorsement. “Parts of it are well done,” he said. “Other parts I’ve got some doubt about, in terms of how good the policy is.”
Boehner’s equivocation was more love than Ryan saw from other quarters. At times, the organs of the Republican party in Washington actively fought Ryan’s efforts to promote his ideas and warned candidates to avoid talking about them at all costs.
“He had to fight internally just to be able to talk about it himself,” says Nunes, who was the vice chairman for coalitions of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), the arm of the party responsible for electing Republicans to the House. Nunes says that deliberations inside the committee about how to handle Ryan’s proposals didn’t last long. “It wasn’t much of a debate. They’re good friends of mine, but I was just outnumbered.”
On August 31, 2010, a press secretary for the NRCC sent an “Alert” to candidates supported by the committee:
MSNBC is trying to convince a Republican candidate to go on the Dylan Ratigan Show tonight and support the Paul Ryan Roadmap, therefore supporting Social Security privatization. Please do NOT accept this invitation; it will not end well. In addition, if you receive any questions about the Roadmap, please contact me immediately before answering any questions.
Ryan tried not to take it personally. “I just shrugged my shoulders and said: ‘That’s what the political people do.’ ”
But even as the NRCC and other national Republicans were warning against embracing Ryan, many candidates were seeking him out directly. Kristi Noem, a Republican running for the lone House seat in South Dakota, approached Ryan for help after winning a difficult primary. “I wanted to know the specifics of the reforms in his document, especially on Medicare,” she says. “The debt that we’re accumulating is one of the main reasons I wanted to come to Washington. I was very concerned about Medicare going bankrupt and Social Security going insolvent.” Noem didn’t agree with every line of the 2010 version of Ryan’s plan—she believes in crop insurance, for instance, and favors preserving traditional Medicare as an option for seniors (as does the most recent Ryan budget). But she was grateful for the conceptual framework Ryan provided in the conversations they had during her successful campaign.
In Indiana, Dan Coats used Ryan’s reforms to help him defeat two other conservatives in the Republican primary. A former senator, Coats didn’t just want to return to the Senate. “I had the T-shirt,” he says. He decided to run again because he wanted to tackle the big problems facing the country, so he called Ryan and his staff for briefings on the Roadmap. At a Tea Party forum in Warsaw, Indiana, shortly after he joined the race, Coats dismissed his opponents’ calls for eliminating cabinet agencies and freezing spending as inadequate solutions to a much bigger problem. Against the advice of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which had recruited him to run, Coats attended the forum and called for structural entitlement reforms like those in Ryan’s Roadmap. The crowd, he said, seemed to get it, and he could see them nodding in approval. “So I just attached myself to Ryan. From that point forward, I talked about those reforms in every presentation I made and in every speech I gave.”
Other candidates did the same, including many who won competitive races: Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania
and Ron Johnson in Wisconsin running for the Senate; and Dan Benishek in Michigan, Joe Heck in Nevada, and Sean Duffy in Wisconsin running for the House. In a March 2010 debate televised nationally on Fox News Sunday, Senate candidate Marco Rubio in Florida spoke of entitlement reform and said, “I think a great starting point for this conversation is the Ryan Roadmap, and I’m proud to have Representative Ryan’s endorsement in this campaign.”
In all, Ryan’s campaign fielded more than 100 requests for information from candidates. Many of them would soon be incoming House freshmen, a fact that allowed Ryan to establish relationships with people who would later become his most enthusiastic supporters. That election would prove pivotal in Ryan’s quest to place entitlement reform at the center of his party’s agenda.
If the Republican defeat in the 2006 midterms started Ryan’s project, the sweeping GOP victory in the 2010 midterms sharply accelerated its pace. “I think the validation of the 2010 elections gave leadership the courage to proceed—2010 woke people up. The 87 new freshman were a welcome burst of energy, and I think leadership understood that they had two choices: They could lead the parade, or they could get out of the way.”
It was a dramatic turnaround. Just months after national Republicans had warned their candidates about embracing Ryan’s Roadmap, the party chose to give him a high-profile, national platform to sell his reforms when he was invited to give the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union address. On January 25, 2011, Ryan made his case.
Our debt is out of control. What was a fiscal challenge is now a fiscal crisis. We cannot deny it; instead we must, as Americans, confront it responsibly. And that is exactly what Republicans pledge to do. Americans are skeptical of both political parties, and that skepticism is justified—especially when it comes to spending. So hold all of us accountable.
In this very room, the House will produce, debate, and advance a budget. Last year—in an unprecedented failure—Congress chose not to pass, or even propose, a budget. The spending spree continued unchecked. We owe you a better choice and a different vision.
Our forthcoming budget is our obligation to you—to show you how we intend to do things differently . . . how we will cut spending to get the debt down . . . help create jobs and prosperity . . . and reform government programs. If we act soon, and if we act responsibly, people in and near retirement will be protected.
“We’re now talking about the things that Paul has been talking about and working on for years,” says Mark Green, his former House colleague. “Entitlements, tax reform, trade policy—normally you look at someone in office and notice how they change, how their issues change. Now it’s the public coming around to Paul’s set of issues, not the other way around.”
Bill Bennett, who remains close to Ryan and was in the small circle of advisers Ryan consulted last year as he weighed a presidential bid, is surprised at the success of his protégé: “Nobody is a greater admirer of Paul than I am,” Bennett says. “But I would not have predicted this.”
he results of the 2010 elections meant something else, too: Paul Ryan would be chairman of the House Budget Committee and responsible for writing the Republican budget proposal. He pushed immediately to model the budget on the reforms he’d included in his Roadmap. In a debate that remained largely behind the scenes in the opening weeks of the new Congress, the leadership debated the wisdom of giving Ryan the green light. House majority leader Eric Cantor expressed reservations about having members go on the record in support of real entitlement reform. Boehner was more open to the idea. In reality, it probably didn’t matter. Ryan was going to move ahead regardless of what he heard from his colleagues, and he had a considerable army behind him. And when President Obama proposed a budget that failed to deal with entitlements in any serious way, earning him the condemnation of even Obama-friendly editorial boards and columnists, Republicans saw an opportunity to show a contrast with the president on leadership.
Appearing on Meet the Press on February 13, Boehner hinted that Ryan would receive the go-ahead. “You’ll see our budget where, I’ve got to believe, we’re going to deal with the entitlement problem.” Boehner’s words surprised even some of his own colleagues. The next day at his pen-and-pad briefing, Cantor sought to sharpen the differences between House Republicans and the White House. “We will also be presenting at the end of next month, towards the beginning of April, our own budget, a serious document that will reflect the type of path we feel we should be taking to address the national fiscal situation, including addressing entitlement reforms, unlike the president did in his budget.” Kevin McCarthy, the majority whip, formally notified his Republican colleagues at a whip meeting that evening.
Ryan presented his budget on April 5, 2011. It included major tax reform, caps on discretionary spending, and, most important, a major overhaul of two of the entitlements that are driving the debt. As he had in his Roadmap, Ryan proposed block-granting Medicaid and transforming Medicare from a guaranteed benefit program into a premium support program that would send money back to seniors to shop for their own health care. Ryan left Social Security out of his proposal in part because he believes it is the entitlement most susceptible to bipartisan reform.
The Ryan budget, which he called the “Path to Prosperity,” passed the House 235 to 193, with no Democratic votes but support from all but 4 Republicans. It failed in the Democrat-controlled Senate but won the votes of 40 of the upper chamber’s 45 Republicans. In late 2011, Ryan tweaked his Medicare proposal to allow seniors to choose traditional Medicare as one of their options and in the process won the backing of Democratic senator Ron Wyden of Oregon.
The widespread support from congressional Republicans virtually ensured that the party’s presidential
candidates would endorse Ryan’s budget. Would the party nominate a candidate who didn’t back a budget supported by 97 percent of its congressional membership? Unlikely.
Mitt Romney’s first statement on the Ryan budget, though, seemed to fall well short of a full-throated embrace. “I applaud Rep. Paul Ryan for recognizing the looming financial crisis that faces our nation and for the creative and bold thinking that he brings to the debate,” he said in a press release. “He is setting the right tone for finally getting spending and entitlements under control. Anyone who has read my book knows that we are on the same page.”
The comment was characteristic of Romney’s cautious approach. But those interested enough to flip through his book, No Apology, discovered that Romney did discuss entitlements with some specificity. More interestingly, he lamented that candidates in 2008 hadn’t laid out detailed plans for entitlement reform, and he scolded the media for failing to demand specifics:
I admit to having been more than a little surprised that many of the serious challenges facing America today were not forcefully examined by the media during the 2008 primary and general election campaigns. It’s well understood by those who have studied the federal budget, for example, that our entitlement programs will eventually swamp us. But neither party’s candidates were pushed to explain what they would do about it. In one of our Republican primary debates, for example, we were asked, “Specifically, what would you do to fix Social Security?” Most responded by restating the problem—“Social Security is bankrupt”—rather than by addressing a solution; politicians have learned from experience that it is unwise to touch the “third rail of politics.” But why is that? Why is it that the media doesn’t hold accountable those who duck this critical issue? Why isn’t it instead that failure to address entitlement and Social Security reform is the “third rail?”
Now that he’s the Republican nominee, does Romney want to press this case? He’s certainly been more specific on entitlement reform than Barack Obama. And there’s an obvious opening for Romney to run a campaign focused on Obama’s failure of leadership on debt and deficits.
Ryan has said all along that he believes Romney should take it. At a town hall in Burlington, Wisconsin, in May, Ryan took a question from a woman who said she was “fed up” with negative campaigning. Then she read this statement: “I want to hear solid solutions to the problems that face all Americans,” she said. “The who, what, when, where, why, and especially the how we are going to deal with poverty, unemployment, housing, real health care solutions, keeping our military strong. How can you convince President Obama and Governor Romney to run positive campaigns and give us solid solutions? You’re the only one that I’ve seen telling a real plan—this is the second time I’ve seen it now.”
Romney’s 59-point economic plan, she continued, is too long. “Can you sit down with him and tell him that every time he speaks to a person or a group he needs to emphasize something from his plan that’s not Obama-bashing but rather a reason to vote for Mitt Romney for president?” The question won enthusiastic applause.
“I’d probably have better success with him than with President Obama,” Ryan said, to laughter. “If we don’t like the path we’re on, which people like me don’t, we have an obligation to give you an alternative that you can choose. And I do think Mitt Romney’s doing this. If you turned on TV a couple weeks ago you would have seen me running around the state with him because we had this primary here. The last time we had a primary that mattered for Republicans was 1980. This one mattered. So I’ve had an opportunity to speak with this man. I think he understands the fork in the road we are at in this country and the choice of two futures we have.
“And, yes, we must—we have a moral obligation to you to show you a choice,” Ryan continued, his voice rising. “Do you want to take these challenges on now, do it on our own terms while we can implement attainable, reasonable, phased-in reforms so we can get this debt under control, so this economy can grow? We have specific solutions that show exactly how we propose to do that. And, yeah, we need to go to you when we ask you to rehire us, to give us the ability to put this in place so that we can try and save the American idea. . . . That’s his obligation. He’s running against the incumbent. He owes you that choice for you to make. And that, for me, is what we have to do.”
Ryan says he became convinced Romney wanted to present voters with that choice when the two men traveled throughout Wisconsin together before the state’s April 3 primary. Romney and Ryan did six town-hall-style events together. At the first one, Ryan simply introduced Romney and got out of the way. At the second, Romney instructed his staff to leave a microphone for Ryan so that the congressman could jump in if there were any questions directed to him. And for the final four events, Ryan and Romney occupied the stage together and took turns answering questions. Ryan says the change in format was Romney’s idea and no one on the Romney campaign discouraged him from talking about entitlement reform and his budget. “He knows how I talk and what I say. And I’m pretty clear about that stuff. I think he’s comfortable with that.”
In an interview after the Burlington event in May, Ryan said that it was clear Romney “wants to bring this to a choice—not just a referendum on Obama’s bad stewardship, but on the American idea itself and a choice of two futures. For all the risk-aversion stories that have been written about Romney, it seems to me that he’s gotten himself in the mindset of understanding the moment we are facing and the need to bring this real clear conversation to the country about the choice they have to make. . . . This is probably not the election he thought he was going to run, say two years ago when he first decided to run, but I think he’s become extremely comfortable and accepting of what it is and what it needs to be.”
Would Romney run on this choice? Ryan wasn’t sure. “We’ve put these ideas out there. He’s embraced them. So the question is: Are we going to be on offense in articulating these things and defining them? Otherwise, they’re going to define them for us.”
Two months later, Romney has not exactly shied away from Ryan. Several top Ryan staffers have relocated to Boston to help at Romney campaign headquarters. They include Stephen Spruiell, a former Ryan speechwriter, Matt Hoffman, a health care budget analyst, and Jonathan Burks, Ryan’s policy director.
Ryan has been a prominent surrogate for Romney. He has done a town hall for Romney in North Carolina, a press conference in Wisconsin, and numerous campaign-driven media appearances. The Romney campaign has sent out press releases highlighting Ryan’s words or noting his criticism of the president.
I asked Ryan last week if he still believes Romney is meeting this obligation. “I think he really found his voice in the primary,” says Ryan. “And I think he’s regaining his voice. He’s embraced all of these reforms, all of them.”
It’s not exactly a shot at Romney, but it’s not quite an enthusiastic endorsement of his recent campaign, either. Romney has been running almost entirely on criticism of Obama and his poor stewardship of the economy. As Romney said earlier this month, “As long as I’m talking about the economy, I’m going to win.” It’s not hard to imagine that Romney was parroting the analysis he’s been given by his strategists. And despite encouragement from a wide variety of outside analysts (in publications like this magazine and the Wall Street Journal) and elected officials (like Chris Christie and Scott Walker) to go bigger and bolder, the Romney campaign has signaled, publicly at least, that it intends to stick to the plan it conceived many months ago. “Romney’s advisers strongly rejected the course-correction suggestion,” the Washington Post reported on July 5. The election, they believe, is a referendum on Obama’s economic policies.
If that doesn’t change, Paul Ryan will not be Mitt Romney’s running mate. And the conventional wisdom is that it won’t. Romney is risk-averse, and picking Ryan would be risky. Political reporters and most Republicans in Washington don’t give Ryan a chance.
I asked James Carville, who criticizes Ryan in his new book, It’s the Middle Class, Stupid, if he thinks Ryan would be the Obama campaign’s first choice if they were given an opportunity to make the pick for Romney. His answer: “I don’t think he’d be their first choice, but he’d be a clarifying choice. The race wouldn’t be about personalities, it’d be about big issues.”
Democratic strategist Joe Trippi says, “A lot of Democrats I talk to would be doing somer-saults if Romney picked Ryan. I think he is a dangerous pick. And I mean that in both ways. He would help us as Democrats make this more a contest about different visions, rather than just a referendum on Obama. But he is good and he is bold. If Mitt Romney actually campaigned on bold proposals to solve these big problems he’d be a much tougher candidate.”
The case for Ryan is simple: No one, with the
possible exception of Marco Rubio, would do more to energize the conservative base and unite the party. Rush Limbaugh would praise the pick, but so would David Brooks and nearly everyone in between. “The response would be overwhelmingly positive,” says Ed Feulner, president of the Heritage Foundation and a longtime leader of the conservative movement. “Overwhelmingly positive. He’s one of us.” Representative Nunes agrees. “If Romney picked him—for conservatives it would be the best pick because it would signify a commitment to solving the long-term fundamental problems of the country.”
And there is evidence that putting Ryan on the ticket would help in Wisconsin. A survey of voters there last week by Public Policy Polling found that Obama is “the clear favorite to win the state” with a lead of 50 percent to 44 percent over Mitt Romney. But “one thing that could make the state look like much more of a toss up is if Romney chooses Paul Ryan as his running mate.” With Ryan on the GOP ticket Obama’s lead shrinks to 47 percent to 46 percent. Pollster Tom Jensen writes: “Ryan’s presence has the effect of further unifying the GOP base around Romney and also helping to bring some independent voters into the fold”—pretty much exactly what a vice presidential pick is supposed to do.
“If I were advising Romney,” said Trippi, “I’d tell him to pick Ryan. I just can’t see him doing it. But as a Democrat I’d personally prefer to see Romney pick a careful candidate, a clone. A gray suit.”
Trippi says that attacks on the Ryan budget are coming regardless of who is on the ticket. He believes the Obama campaign is focusing on Romney’s tenure at Bain because they need to convince voters that he’s willing to disregard the interests of the poor and the middle class to enrich himself and his friends. But the Bain argument is the beginning of their case, not the end of it. If this were a boxing match, these would be the body blows, the punches that set up the roundhouse.
“The Bain stuff is a setup to the Ryan budget,” says Trippi. “The Obama campaign has been struggling to tie Romney to the Ryan budget. If he picks Ryan, that short-circuits that and makes their job easier.” But there’s an upside for Romney, too, in running a campaign that puts those ideas at the center of his case. “If Romney had been running that campaign he’d be doing a lot better than the campaign he’s been running.”
Ryan has never been a title-chaser. He’s a guileless, straightforward man who wants to advance the ideas he believes in. It’s not quite accurate to say that he’s not political; he’s an effective politician, as one would have to be to consistently post huge victories in a district that Charlie Cook, of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, has rated in the dead center—No. 218—on his partisan voter index. But if he were driven primarily by political considerations he wouldn’t have spent most of the last five years doing precisely the opposite of what most Republican pollsters and strategists were recommending.
Unlike some others mentioned as possible running mates, Ryan hasn’t been quietly campaigning for the job. Normally one of the most accessible Republicans on Capitol Hill, Ryan has turned down virtually all of the interview requests he’s received over the past several weeks. His staff is nervous that this article, originally conceived in February as a narrower look at the history of his entitlement reform proposals, will be published at the height of vice presidential speculation.
Ryan would no doubt accept the job if it were offered. “He told me directly he would do it,” says one Ryan confidant. But he’d be perfectly content to work with a President Romney as chairman of the House Budget Committee.
Ryan has already achieved one objective he’d set for himself when he decided to remain in Congress and work on entitlement reform. “My goal was to move the center of gravity in the Republican party on these issues.”
It seemed naïve, maybe impossible before he started. His next goal could be characterized the same way. “There’s no way you can actually save this country from a debt crisis, and save the American idea, if you don’t do the kinds of things we’re proposing,” Ryan says. “We’ll see how it ends.”
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.