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.
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—”
Ryan cut him off: “I do. Because this is how we get our country back. We do it through a referendum letting the country pick the path, not by having a committee of 12 people pick the path or not by having just the inertia of just letting the status quo just stumble through by winning a campaign based on dividing people.”
Such things were on Ryan’s mind when he met later that day in his hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin, with Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who stopped by to see Ryan before heading to Ames for the straw poll. According to several sources with knowledge of the meeting, Luntz had included in his polling of the Republican presidential race questions about some prominent Republicans not yet running. When Luntz volunteered to share the results, Ryan, who hadn’t done any polling of his own, agreed to see him. Luntz had tested voters’ responses to Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, and Ryan, among prominent noncandidates. The results, according to a Republican with knowledge of the discussion, were “very positive” for Ryan.
Luntz is not the only campaign veteran who’s been talking to Ryan. He has been speaking regularly with a number of Republican strategists. Among them are Karl Rove, the longtime adviser to George W. Bush. As Ryan has thought through his decision he’s had as a sounding board the only GOP strategist to win a presidential election in the last two decades.
Other prominent Republicans last week publicly urged Ryan to join the race. “If there were a Paul Ryan fan club, I’d be a national officer,” Mitch Daniels said in a phone interview last week. Daniels has been in touch with Ryan about his decision. “I don’t think it’s a secret that he was strongly encouraging me to try. I’ve been strongly encouraging him to run as well. He has all the qualities our party needs to be emphasizing in these elections. He can explain—and is willing to explain—in plain English why today’s policies are a disaster for the middle class, and he has the smarts to go toe-to-toe with the people who are saying misleading things about the proposals that he’s put out there.”
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush agreed. “Paul Ryan would be a formidable candidate. I admire his substance and energy. Win or lose, he would force the race to be about sustained, job-creating economic growth and the real policies that can achieve it.”
And Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, among the most popular governors in the country with Republicans after winning his battle with the state’s unions, offered the strongest encouragement yet. “Paul Ryan is one of the most courageous people I know,” Walker said. “We need leaders who care more about the next generation than they do about the next election. That’s Paul.”
Others joined the chorus. Jim Jordan, a leading House conservative and author of the Cut, Cap, and Balance Plan that passed the House during the debt ceiling fight, said Ryan would be an asset to the race. Congressman Devin Nunes was pushing a Draft Ryan plan before it was cool. Texas senator John Cornyn and Wisconsin senator Ron Johnson also encouraged Ryan to run. Other lawmakers have gone to Ryan privately and urged him to get in. And for several months, in a procession that began well before Daniels declined to run, Ryan has been hearing from prominent GOP fundraisers and donors with promises to help him raise money if he joins the race.
Ryan spent several hours last week hiking in the Rocky Mountains with Bill Bennett, who has been a friend and mentor for nearly 20 years. They have been doing mountain hikes for several years, but in an interview before the outing Bennett acknowledged that the significance of this year’s trek was the decision on the other side of it. “I expect to have some good long talks.” Bennett declined to share details of those conversations.
Several people who have been talking to Ryan expect that he will return to Washington near the end of August having made his decision. Most everyone who has been in touch with him believes that he is still genuinely torn between the daunting challenge of a presidential campaign he never expected to wage this year and the obligation of stepping forward to serve his country in a time of crisis.
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.