Paul Ryan's fans don't want to take "no" for an answer.
"I'm a truck driver,” announces the first constituent to question Ryan at a townhall meeting in the congressman's hometown of Janesville. “And in March and April, when I was in Iowa and Minnesota, when people found out I was from Wisconsin, there was a lot of enthusiasm for Paul Ryan--unsolicited. And along with the president of Hillsdale College I'm going to hold you responsible if Obama wins reelection because we don't have a qualified candidate."
Later, a woman at a meeting in Elkhorn rises to speak of the challenges facing the nation. "We need a clone of Paul Ryan" in the White House, she concludes, to right our nation's course.
An elderly veteran, one of his final questioners at his final townhall on Friday afternoon in Kenosha, sounds a little curmudgeonly when asking Ryan to do more to help young veterans get jobs and expand domestic energy production. The man is pleased with Ryan's answers, but the agitation in his voice rises during his final question.
"Why don’t you run for president and lead us out of this mess?"
In response to these questions, Ryan thanks his fans for the sentiment, but the typically articulate congressman brushes off their pleas without much explanation.
During the 45-minute car ride from Elkhorn to Kenosha, I hand Ryan the New Hampshire presidential primary filing form. We're about three hours away from the filing deadline, but all it takes to get him on the ballot is a signature, a $1,000 check, and a non-stop private jet flight from Kenosha to Concord (funded by, say, one of those billionaire puppetmasters that preoccupies the imagination of MSNBC host Rachel Maddow).
Ryan reads the form and laughs along with his chief of staff Andy Speth, who is driving Ryan's Chevy Suburban. I rattle off some of the flaws of the current candidates and ask him if Republicans disappointed with the field are wrong to be disappointed. "You think I'm going to answer that question?" Ryan replies. "The field we have is the field we're going to have. It's not going to change."
Ryan came to his own final decision not to run after a hike in Colorado with his wife Janna on Sunday, August 21. "My family was supportive of me whatever I wanted to do," he says. "It was really a gut thing." Ryan says that originally "we had a longer timeline in mind to process this decision," but the August 16 report by Steve Hayes on Ryan's presidential considerations "sort of accelerated my [decision]--I didn’t want to dramatize this thing, string it out."
As with most gut decisions, Ryan can't really explain it logically. “From a competitive and intellectual standpoint, the idea of the race was intriguing to me for sure,” Ryan says. "It made sense in my mind, but it has to make sense in your heart and your gut as well. I don’t know how else to describe it," he says. "My gut has never been wrong” about such decisions.
But even without the "fire in the belly," wouldn't he have had as good or better of a shot at winning than the others in the race? “I don’t think a lack of faith in the ability of other candidates is enough of a reason," Ryan says. "And more to the point, these candidates were new, you know. I didn’t know how Rick Perry was going to do.”
“Romney hadn’t been fully tested," at the time of his decision, Ryan continues. "They had one or two debates maybe. He keeps winning these debate tests. He’s pretty capable and strong and resilient in those things."
Ryan's decision not to run for president means that when the GOP selects a nominee Ryan will relinquish his role as the most important Republican in America (a role he took on following the release of his Medicare-reforming budget in April). But it's clear that in Ryan's second act--prosecuting the case against Obama, boosting the eventual GOP nominee, and shaping the agenda--he still intends to play a big part.
“I’m not going away. It’s not like I’m leaving. It’s not like I’m going to go away and go become a hunting guide for the next four years,” he says. "I will be involved one way or another in shaping this."
Asked if he's concerned that his work on the budget will have been for nothing if the GOP nominee runs away from entitlement reform, Ryan replies, “I don’t think he will. I don’t think he can.”
"I’ve talked to all of these candidates, and I’m convinced that they want it, that they know we’ve got to do this fast. We’ve got to do entitlement reform," he says.
Even Mitt Romney, who has attacked Rick Perry for his rough rhetoric about Social Security? “I spent an hour with Romney on Thursday,” Ryan says. The two talked about entitlements on Capitol Hill. “I think he gets the situation, and I think he’s serious about fixing it if elected. I think Perry’s the same way. I know Herman’s the same way.”
But what about Romneycare? Ryan has said Romneycare is "not that dissimilar to Obamacare." Is Ryan "intellectually dishonest," as New Jersey governor Chris Christie said of those who claim the two programs are similar?
“Well, I guess from a federalism standpoint, I understand that point,” Ryan says with a laugh. He doesn't back off of his judgment about Romneycare, but says the issue is irrelevant. “I don’t think this question matters that much anymore because Romney’s been very clear that he’s against Obamacare and he’s going to repeal it. So I for a second don’t worry about whether he’s going to shy away from repealing the president’s health care law."
Ryan praises the rest of the field, commending Perry for proposing a pro-growth flat-tax and crediting Herman Cain for encouraging his rivals to offer bold plans. Ryan says he's even on good terms with Newt Gingrich, who called Ryan's reform "right-wing social engineering" on Meet the Press last spring. "With allies like that, who needs the left?" Ryan said the day after Gingrich's appearance.
"There was never a hatchet to bury really. He said what he said. And what happened happened," Ryan now says of Gingrich. "I ran into him the other day at the airport. We’re fine. I talked to him. He emails me fairly often.”
Ryan admits he's reluctant to criticize any of the Repubilcan candidates. In order to change the policies coming out of Washington, there needs to be a change of personnel in the White House. “I’m trying very hard not to sandbag or criticize these guys and their plans," Ryan says. "Everybody tries to get me to be the referee of people’s plans. They’re all good people, good candidates. They’re all huge improvements over Obama.” Ryan won't be endorsing a candidate during the primary because he's been tapped by the RNC to fundraise for the eventual nominee.
In addition to cash, Ryan is more than willing to lend the nominee ideas and rhetoric free of charge. Ryan's speech last Thursday at the Heritage Foundation, for example, was a rousing free-market populist attack on "crony capitalism" and the "corporate welfare that enriches the powerful, and empty promises that betray the powerless."
Ryan drew the ire of the left and inspired the right. "If more Republicans thought—and spoke—like this, the party would flourish," Peggy Noonan wrote in the Wall Street Journal.
At his townhall meetings, Ryan continues to put on a clinic for fellow Republicans. "I don't care about rich people because they're already rich," he says in Janesville. "Where we need to be focusing our energies and attention is not tearing down someone who's been successful. It is on trying to help people become successful who have never been there."
"I would like to see nothing more than the decentralization of the concentration of wealth in America," Ryan continues.
"Why don't you say that on TV?" the slightly hostile questioner replies.
Ryan insists he did just last week and urges his constituent to read his entire speech. "Here's my point: the way to do that is extend equal opportunity and free enterprise, not deny those things."
Ryan continues to handle pointed criticism of his Medicare reform deftly. At Kenosha, a 53-year-old man stands and tells Ryan he has end-stage renal failure and will die if Ryan's Medicare reform passes.
"You may as well put a gun to my head," he says.
"I've got good news for you," Ryan says. "What you said is not correct, and I mean that in a sincere, kind way."
Ryan explains empathetically and articulately that people now on Medicare will be grandfathered into the old system, that those in the new system could not be denied coverage by providers, that high-risk subsidies would stabilize their rates, and that Obamacare is what will "collapse the health care system, and especially the Medicare system."
"You have a very unique health care condition. I'm very familiar with it," Ryan says. "The federal government basically stepped up and said, let's cover this disease because there's no way private insurance can cover this. We learned a lot about end-stage renal disease, and that is this: There are some people in society who through no fault of their own--you're a perfect example--get hit with an unpredictable extremely expensive illness."
Ryan explains that the solution is state-based "high-risk pools," which would protect the 8 percent of the population that needs such subsidies and lower premiums for the other 92 percent.
The audience applauds. And the man suffering from end-stage renal failure sits back down.