Now that Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has been selected as Mitt Romney’s running mate, news outlets across the land will be putting together long-form profiles of the budget cutter. Preferably ones that draw on extensive interviews with Ryan. Ones that include a visit to Ryan’s hometown of Janesville, Wis. Ones that point out the irony of government spending helping to revive an area represented by a champion of small government.
The New Yorker had one of those models right on hand on Friday night, courtesy of Ryan Lizza, the magazine’s Washington correspondent. “Fussbudget: How Paul Ryan Captured the G.O.P.” was published Aug. 6, pegged to the inevitability of the congressman’s enduring influence:
To envisage what Republicans would do if they win in November, the person to understand is not necessarily Romney, who has been a policy cipher all his public life. The person to understand is Paul Ryan.
The New Yorker poured 6,400 words into the profile even as it declared that Ryan was a “long shot” for the vice presidential selection. Lizza settled on the piece in part out of bipartisanship: He tries to bounce between stories on Republicans and Democrats and had recently done a takeout on what a second Obama term would look like. Ryan seemed a good segue: “He’s someone we’d been wanting to do [a profile of] for a while. I’d be lying if I said we did it because he’d become Romney’s running mate,” says Lizza.
In exploring Ryan’s history, Lizza found that the congressman has led a “charmed life” in terms of media coverage. Perhaps that’s why, according to Lizza, Ryan referenced what he suspected would be a rough turn in the New Yorker: “He said several times, ‘This is going to be the hit piece, isn’t it?’ He said it in a sort of joking way. I told him I’ve read your clips and I said you’ve never had any bad press,” recalls Lizza.
The rep’s paranoia was poorly informed. The New Yorker, under Lizza’s byline, turned out a balanced look at Ryan — his background, the evolution of his ideology and his rise as a government-reforming star among conservatives.
Whatever benefit the White House had seen in raising Ryan’s profile, his increasing power, and his credibility as the leading authority on conservative fiscal policy, soon made his imprimatur essential for any Republican trying to reach a compromise with Democrats. Ryan helped scuttle three deals on the budget. He had served on the Simpson-Bowles deficit commission but refused to endorse its final proposal, in December, 2010. When deficit negotiations moved from the failed commission to Congress, Ryan stuck with the extreme faction of the G.O.P. caucus, which withheld support from any of the leading bipartisan plans. In the summer of 2011, when a group of Democratic and Republican senators, known as the Gang of Six, produced their own agreement, Ryan’s detailed criticism helped sink it. And, also that summer, during high-level talks between the White House and Republican leaders, Cantor and Ryan reportedly pressured Boehner to reject a potential deal with President Obama.
The story did make a critical observation about the fortunes of Janesville. Lizza toured the area with a business booster type, only to find that the bright spots in the local economy enjoyed significant support from the federal government. The irony wasn’t lost on the reporter:
When I pointed out to Ryan that government spending programs were at the heart of his home town’s recovery, he didn’t disagree. But he insisted that he has been misunderstood. “Obama is trying to paint us as a caricature,” he said. “As if we’re some bizarre individualists who are hardcore libertarians. It’s a false dichotomy and intellectually lazy.” He added, “Of course we believe in government. We think government should do what it does really well, but that it has limits, and obviously within those limits are things like infrastructure, interstate highways, and airports.” But independent assessments make clear that Ryan’s budget plan, in order to achieve its goals, would drastically reduce the parts of the budget that fund exactly the kinds of projects and research now helping Janesville.
Observations of that sort probably didn’t endear Lizza to the Wisconsin congressman. The only feedback he received from Ryan’s world came from an aide, who e-mailed, “Enjoyed reading your piece.”
Whatever the case, the New Yorker piece showcases a headstrong politician unafraid to engage with a deep reportial effort on his career. Lizza was impressed with the open-door policy: “The fact that he cooperated and cooperated extensively made me think that he probably was not going to be picked [as a vice presidential candidate]. Why would somebody who was going to be picked sit down for an interview? If you’re in that last stage, you sit down and shut up,” says Lizza, who interviewed Ryan for the story twice in July — once in person, once on the phone — right in the heat of Romney’s VP vetting exercise. They spoke for a total of an hour and a half.
Sounds typical. Today Mark Halperin noted on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that Ryan is popular among veteran Washington reporters; Bill Keller of the New York Times calls him a “self-confident” type who’ll call a “critical columnist if he sees a scrap of common ground”; and a Time reporter notes, “A former staffer himself, Ryan also insisted that everyone — press included — call him Paul.” Says Lizza: “Ryan’s whole career has been one of openness to the press.”
Time for contrasts. The top of the Republican ticket, let’s just aver, will never be known for his chumminess with reporters. Or for routinely enduring long sit-downs with print scribes. Romney recently sustained a lot of press criticism for his lack of press availability on a foreign trip on which he took three questions from the traveling corps, though he did field questions from television personalities.
An inquiry to the Romney campaign on these at-odds media styles didn’t fetch an immediate response. It’ll be interesting to see how the campaign reconciles the two approaches, or if it attempts to do so. The pair’s joint interview on CBS’s “60 Minutes” looks like a positive start.