Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan is strongly considering a run for president. Ryan, who has been quietly meeting with political strategists to discuss a bid over the past three months, is on vacation in Colorado discussing a prospective run with his family. Ryan’s concerns about the effects of a presidential campaign – and perhaps a presidency – on his family have been his primary focus as he thinks through his political future.
“He’s coming around,” says a Republican source close to Ryan, who has been urging the 41-year-old to run.
“With Paul, it’s more about obligation than opportunity,” says another Wisconsin Republican. “He is determined to have the 2012 election be about the big things. If that means he has to run, he’s open to it.”
Ryan hinted at his thinking during a candid interview Friday with Charlie Sykes, an influential talk radio host in Milwaukee, telling Sykes that he was unsatisfied with the current crop of Republican candidates.
Sykes asked Ryan about state of the Republican presidential campaign. “Looking at the Republican field right now, 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.”
Sykes asked if Ryan understands why people think that person should be him.
“Well, I keep hearing that. I’m hoping that people will step up and I’m hoping that somebody – I can help them fashion this. You know my story and you know my answer – and I haven’t changed it. We’ve got a long way to go. There’s 15 months left.”
Ryan has been talking to friends and advisers about a run since last spring. Those familiar with his thinking say that he expected that Indiana governor Mitch Daniels would run. Hours before Daniels released a letter he’d sent to supporters informing them of his decision not to run, he called Ryan to give him a heads up. That phone call profoundly changed Ryan’s thinking.
One Ryan confidante used an analogy to make the point. Ryan sees running for president like taking a swan dive off a cliff. In the early stages of the race, when he started getting calls urging him to run, Ryan began walking away from the cliff at a brisk pace. Then, when Daniels announced that he was passing on a bid, Ryan stopped in place and turned around. In the weeks since, he’s slowly made his way back to the cliff and he’s now peering over the side trying to decide if he makes the leap.
There have been many hints of this in recent months. In an early June appearance on Your World with Neil Cavuto, the Fox host asked Ryan if he had changed his mind about a run. Ryan, who had been rather firm in his denials of interest, softened his hard line. “Look, I want to see how this field develops,” he said, surprising even those who had been urging him to run. “I was hoping Mitch Daniels would get into the race. He obviously didn’t do that. But there’s such a long way to go. Obviously, I believe Republicans need to retake the White House.”
When Cavuto asked if this meant he was taking another look, as Ryan’s comments suggested, the congressman said he wasn’t giving it “serious consideration because to do that you really have to get into this thing full throttle.”
But in private meetings with conservatives urging him to run, Ryan was more open to a bid and that serious consideration started shortly thereafter. Early this summer, Ryan met with two different Republican strategists to game out what a late-starting run would require, making clear that he was truly just asking questions and not yet planning. He continued to take calls from top Republican fundraisers, neither committing to a bid nor ruling one out. And he asked his staff to look at whether he would have to give up his seat in the House if he were to jump into the Republican primary.
Last week, Ryan’s Prosperity PAC sent out a fundraising letter seeking money to run ads in Iowa to counter attack ads run against Republicans by the Democratic National Committee. “The DNC is attacking all of the candidates for their support of my Path to Prosperity budget,” Ryan wrote. “We have to fight back. With your support, I’m planning on launching a counter-attack to educate Iowa voters about the Path to Prosperity and how it’s the only plan currently on the table that saves Medicare.”
Iowa Republican Party chairman Matt Strawn says that Ryan has an open invitation to come to visit Iowa and talk to Republicans – “whether as a presidential candidate or national conservative thought leader.”
Perhaps more telling was Ryan’s request not to serve on the debt supercommittee created by the recent deal on the debt ceiling. Ryan has become driver of policy in the Republican Party, with a focus on debt and deficits. And virtually everyone assumed he would have a seat on the committee. But Ryan went to House speaker John Boehner and specifically requested to be left off of the panel. In his public statements, Ryan said he needed time to work on budget reform in the House. While there’s little doubt that Ryan is keen to work on reforming a badly broken budget process, a source close to the Wisconsin congressman says he asked to remain off the supercommittee in order to preserve the option of a presidential run. The same source says that Boehner encouraged Ryan to run.
In his interview Friday with Charlie Sykes, Ryan argued that the supercommittee is not the place to debate debt and deficits – the 2012 campaign is. “The reason I don’t think it’s going to get us another grand bargain – or should – is we should not have a system where 12 politicians cut some agreement in a back room that restructures the whole design of the federal government in three months time. This is a decision that should be brought to the American people.” He added: “I think we need to have a discussion and a debate about how we’re going to deal with this debt crisis because that will determine the kind of country we are going to be and the kind of country we are going to be for a long, long time.”
That’s the kind of debate that would take place during a presidential race, of course. Ryan does not see anyone in the current Republican field who is making such a debate the center of his or her presidential campaign. Perhaps not surprisingly, Ryan disagrees with the conventional wisdom that the entitlement reform proposals in his budget plan are poison to Republican candidates across the country. He points to the results of the recalls in Wisconsin last week, where the battles centered on Ryan’s plans for retooling Medicare as much as Scott Walker’s successful and increasingly less controversial budget reforms, as “vindication” for the solutions that House Republicans have put before the American people.
Ryan spokesman Conor Sweeney says his boss has nothing to declare. “While grateful for the continued support and encouragement, Chairman Ryan has not changed his mind.”
That seems to be true. No one close to Ryan will say that he has made a decision to run. He is using this family vacation—almost two weeks away from Washington—to give serious thought to diving off of that cliff.