In August 2011, Paul Ryan spent several weeks contemplating a bid for the presidency. He talked informally to political strategists, met with pollster Frank Luntz, and sought the counsel of several longtime friends and advisers, including Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee. Many of these individuals encouraged him to run.
Ryan gave it serious consideration. On his regular family vacation to Colorado, he had long talks with Bill Bennett, a friend and mentor from his days at Empower America. Ryan was chiefly concerned that no one in the Republican field was willing to address the big issues driving the country inexorably into debt—spending and entitlements. He had thought Indiana governor Mitch Daniels might run, and when Daniels called him in the spring to say he wouldn’t be joining the contest, Ryan started entertaining the possibility himself—first as something of a thought experiment and later more seriously.
In early August, Ryan spoke by phone with New Jersey governor Chris Christie. They talked for nearly an hour. Christie shared Ryan’s concern that the Republican field wasn’t talking seriously enough about debt and deficits. Christie had some credibility on the issue, having traveled to Washington, D.C., early in the year for a speech at the American Enterprise Institute to urge Republicans to address the debt crisis. The two men agreed that one or the other of them would likely have to run if these issues were to play a major role in the campaign. But neither wanted to be the candidate.
On August 12, the same day he would meet with Luntz at his home in Janesville, Ryan let some of his thinking creep into public view during an interview with Milwaukee radio host Charlie Sykes.
“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.”
Several prominent Republicans—leaders of the reform conservatism movement—publicly urged Ryan to run, including Daniels, Florida governor Jeb Bush, and Wisconsin governor Scott Walker.
Ryan, of course, passed on the race. But something important happened as a result of the time he’d spent considering a run: Ryan grew comfortable with the possibility of serving on a national ticket.
In laying out his reasons for deciding not to run—in public and in private—Ryan cited concerns about the pressure a national race would have put on his young family. In the course of his deliberations Ryan had talked extensively with his wife, Janna, who shared his reservations about a bid. But she also understood his concerns about an impending debt crisis and the need for a campaign that addressed it. If he had wanted to run, she would have supported his decision.
When I spoke to Ryan in May about the possibility that he’d be chosen as Romney’s running mate, he was typically straightforward about that prospect. “You know me,” he said with a laugh. “Call it Catholic guilt or whatever. I just say what I think. I haven’t given it the real kind of consideration you need to give it—where I need to go to Colorado for a couple of supposedly uninterrupted weeks.
“You’d give it lots of consideration when and if you’re asked to give it lots of consideration by the person who makes the decision. . . . If it comes to that, we will sit down and write out long lists of pros and cons. I’m a very thorough decision-maker. I don’t know that I’ll ever even need to do that, so what’s the point?”
But he nonetheless acknowledged that his deliberations last summer helped clarify his thinking. “It is easier to process,” he said. “I’ve been able to process these kinds of things better now because of what I went through last summer.”
So if Paul Ryan looks surprisingly at home on the largest stage of his political lifetime this evening, ironically it will be in part because he walked up to the precipice last summer and then stepped back. Oddly enough, he may have overestimated the difficulty of a national run. As he told Fox News’s Bret Baier on Monday, the biggest surprise for him since Mitt Romney invited him to join the ticket is that “it’s been a lot less stressful and a lot more fun than I anticipated. People said it would drain me. It actually energizes me. So it’s been a real pleasant surprise.” ♦
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.