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Paul Ryan's Second Act

The Wisconsin congressman looks to 2012 and beyond.

4:03 PM, Nov 1, 2011 • By JOHN MCCORMACK
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Janesville, Wisc.
Paul Ryan's fans don't want to take "no" for an answer.

Paul Ryan by Gage Skidmore

"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. 

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