Paul Ryan is the charming ideologue driven by an ambition robust even by Washington standards. He has been the young man in a hurry, with dead aim; the indefatigable persuader; the self-created “man of ideas,” articulate and conspicuous. “Ideas” politicians can be more likeable and interesting than wise. Yet those who broke out in celebration upon learning that Mitt Romney had chosen Ryan as his running mate, certain that the Wisconsin Congressman’s radical worldview would surely sink the Romney ticket, may find him more dangerous than they currently assume.
The figure of the energetic young man full of ideas and in a big hurry is not unfamiliar in Washington; Ryan, who is 42, has followed a path previously pursued by such people as David Stockman, Jack Kemp, John Kasich, and of course Newt Gingrich. Interestingly, all of these people have been Republicans serving in the House of Representatives. The pattern is that they work the Washington circuits: they attach themselves to powerful figures and advance their careers. They are groomed by the cluster of conservative activist think tanks—somewhat a contradiction in terms—that emerged after the crushing loss of Barry Goldwater; these well-financed institutions have set out to develop big political ideas, to prepare ambitious young men to go forth into politics, and to sell them to the American public.
Ryan is smarter than most of his predecessors, and far more skilled at making a point seem plausible. He’s also more supple. His totemic budget, which claims to cut the deficit by $6 trillion by 2024, gives the wealthy another tax break while raising rates on the middle class and lower-income households. It also slashes domestic programs that help those same groups and in varying versions would take big steps toward privatizing Medicare while inflicting serious damage to Medicaid.
Ryan’s ostensible mastery of the intricacies of the budget was intended to propel him all the way to the chairmanship of the House Budget Committee, from which he could impose on the nation a sweeping revision of the role of the federal government. But a large number of his Republican colleagues saw Ryan’s grand vision as both political poison and off the wall and shied from it. His floundering ambitions were rescued by the members of the Tea Party who shocked the nation with their stunning success in the 2010 election, whom Ryan cultivated as they proceeded to drive the Republican party further to the right. To the chagrin of many established Republicans in the House and throughout Washington, Ryan became chairman of the Budget Committee, and his budget was passed by the House in both 2011 and 2012. Everyone knew it was going nowhere—the Senate, as expected, voted it down in 2011—but it received the votes of a number of Senate Republicans who knew that it would be defeated and were fearful that the base of their party was shifting beneath them. This concern turned out to be prescient, as long-serving Senate Republicans began to face fierce resistance from the right; some were toppled and some gave up without a fight and announced their retirement.
I later asked an important non-elected Republican—who as it happened was an adviser to Romney—how Ryan pulled it off. He sighed and said, “He wore them down. Paul is very persistent—and there was nothing else.” Thus Ryan became the “intellectual leader” of the Republican House. After the House, in a by-now-symbolic vote, approved the Ryan plan a second time in March 2012, Mitt Romney, at the time still trying to nail down the nomination and obviously uncomfortable in his efforts to appease the right, called the Ryan budget “marvelous.” He said that he hoped the Senate would pass it (though it was clear there was no chance this would happen) and that if elected president he would introduce it on what was becoming a very busy Day One.
By late July Romney’s campaign had stalled and though an election’s outcome is rarely predictable at such a relatively early date, and it was always possible that exogenous events could cause an upheaval, his prospects weren’t looking particularly good. Romney allies attributed this to the rough campaign that Obama was running against him, in particular charging him with having made his immense fortune at others’ expense. But Romney inadvertently helped Obama make his case. Romney’s displays of chronic cluelessness about how the less fortunate live and his series of insensitive remarks became a running gag. His awkward attempts to connect with audiences usually backfired. His foreign trip in July, the routine pre-election tour to establish a candidate’s foreign policy skills, was a series of pratfalls.
Seen as whole, Romney’s behavior over the full stretch of the campaign thus far was not only failing to make a favorable impression on the public, it also raised new questions: Is he curious? Is he a man of any breadth and depth? Does he take the words of ideologically bent foreign policy assistants—as his tend to be—and fail to aerate them? Does he just mouth the words of people whose policy judgment is questionable? Did it not occur to him or did no one dare tell him or did he simply dismiss any suggestion that it’s not a good idea to enter presidential-level politics with money stashed away in a Swiss bank account and on the Cayman Islands? Did he not foresee that having been exceptionally aggressive in taking advantage of opportunities in the tax code he would face difficult questions? Did he really think that he could skate by without releasing returns covering more than two years? He had been around national politics for years; what was he thinking? Who is this man?
Romney’s essential political problem was that people simply don’t like him. Polls measuring his and Obama’s likeability were showing an ever-widening gap in Obama’s favor. And by now Obama had done a more effective job of undermining Romney as a credible candidate than Romney had of convincing the country that Obama’s handling of the economy disqualified him from reelection. As a consensus grew within the political world that Romney was on a losing course, William Kristol, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and other influential conservative voices insisted that his only hope of winning lay in offering the vice-presidential slot to Ryan.
Outside that circle, Ryan was considered a long shot and too risky. Yet one can see how Romney would be attracted to the engaging young congressman. When the two men campaigned together while Romney was publicly trying out various aspirants, Ryan noticeably put Romney at ease, joshing with him and appealing to Romney’s belief that he has a great sense of humor. Moreover, Romney was said by aides to enjoy conducting wonky conversations with Ryan.
Ryan has always been someone people liked. In high school he was class president and prom king; in his senior class yearbook he was named the “Biggest Brown-Noser.” While Ryan was in college at Miami University, in Ohio, a conservative professor of philosophy helped him obtain a summer internship with Wisconsin Republican Senator Bob Kasten; he also volunteered for a reelection campaign of local congressman John Boehner. After Ryan graduated he returned to work on Kasten’s economics staff. Through Kasten, he met Republican congressman Jack Kemp. And when Bill Clinton won in 1992, and Kemp, having just served as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under George H.W. Bush, joined in forming Empower America, a conservative activist organization that aimed to offer ideas that would challenge Clinton’s proposals, Ryan followed Kemp and wrote speeches for him.
Though Kemp’s guiding passion was across the board tax cuts, he also pressed for creating opportunities for those who were hurting economically; in a party that was moving to the right, he displayed a notable empathy for blacks and pushed programs to help them. The cheerful and optimistic Kemp was the model of the concept that conservative activists didn’t have to come across as mean and that their policies could reflect some compassion for those in need. Though Kemp became Ryan’s mentor the upcoming politician of ideas didn’t absorb all of Kemp’s example. When Kemp was selected as Bob Dole’s running mate in the 1996 election, Ryan went on to write speeches for him again. After Clinton and Gore crushed the Dole-Kemp team in 1996, Ryan, still in his late twenties, ran for a House seat in Wisconsin. Kemp campaigned for him.
Very quickly, the young congressman Ryan began to attract attention. “Ideas” politicians are flashier than the practical legislators, who tend to deal with an issue at a time rather than global concepts and are more focused on what can be got through the congress and implemented. With the help of influential conservative media and also their own energetic efforts they can become meteorites. Journalists love to talk to them: they’re usually interesting and make themselves very accessible. Ryan was the new generation “ideas” politician, hip and cool. He bopped about Capitol Hill, Led Zeppelin playing on earphones that he would quickly remove at the approach of an inquiring journalist.
But meteorites tend to flame out. Their big ideas prove unworkable and legislatively indigestible, or, as in Gingrich’s notable case, they overreach in their heady exuberance. Romney’s choice of Ryan received tepid praise from many Republicans, especially those running for reelection; some had no comment. In his speech from the U.S.S. Wisconsin, on Saturday, August 11, formally accepting Romney’s exceptional offer, Ryan summed up his concept of the role of government with the homily, “If people work hard and play by the rules they can get ahead.” (Unemployment in Ryan’s hometown of Janesville had run as high as 15 percent in 2008, when a General Motors plant closed, and has remained in double digits.)
On the next day’s morning talk shows Republican spokesmen nervously sidestepped questions about whether Romney was now supporting Ryan’s budget and his Medicare proposal and quickly swiveled into an attack on Obama. When Romney was asked in their joint interview aired on 60 Minutes that evening whether he was now running on Ryan’s budget, his jaw tightened visibly as he said, “Well, I have my budget plan, as you know, that I’ve put out. And that’s the budget plan that we’re going to run on,” and went right on to attack Obama on utility bills. In reality the Romney and Ryan budgets are not all that different in concept and intent and both are sufficiently short on certain significant details, especially when they would be highly controversial. Ryan’s Medicare proposal has undergone so many mutations in an effort to make it more acceptable that it’s an elusive target. (He even induced Oregon Democratic senator Ron Wyden to join him on one new version which also introduces privatization—to the dismay of many of Wyden’s Democratic supporters. Republicans delight in suggesting that Ryan’s plan has “bipartisan backing.”) Romney and Ryan are far less specific than Obama on proposals for changes in politically fraught the tax code.
Romney was almost ebullient in the days following the announcement of Ryan. But he may have misread the enthusiasm of the crowds in Virginia as reflecting how his decision was going over in the rest of the country. A Gallup/CBS poll published two days later showed Ryan’s rating to be a net-negative, the least less popular vice-presidential selection since George H.W. Bush surprised the world with his choice of Dan Quayle in 1988. Even Sarah Palin had received a more positive welcome. But these were first impressions.
For all the scorn heaped on Romney’s choice of Ryan, it’s not clear that he had other great options. Would the selection of the solid Rob Portman, the most qualified of all in terms of experience and capability to govern, or of one of the other worthy but essentially unexciting people have galvanized his campaign? Chris Christie or Marco Rubio, for all their magnetism, hadn’t displayed the discipline required of a vice-presidential running mate. Ryan’s own propensity for drawing attention to himself is now on trial.
But Ryan will prove harder to corner than many salivating Democrats may anticipate, and he and Romney are prepared for virtually any conceivable question or challenge on Medicare. The “great debate over two competing philosophies” that the contending forces and numerous journalists have been rhapsodizing about has already begun to be an alley fight.