The White House’s huge gamble on Paul Ryan

August 17, 2012

Here’s the weird thing about Paul Ryan being named to the Republican presidential ticket: It’s all part of Barack Obama’s campaign plan -- a plan that’s working better than his strategists could have hoped. It could also backfire more disastrously than they could have ever imagined.

It’s hard to remember now, but there was a time, not long ago, when Ryan was no better known than Democrat John Spratt of South Carolina, his predecessor as chairman of the House Budget Committee. And the Republican Party’s leadership was eager to keep it that way.

Paul Ryan's rise is partly due to Barack Obama. (Jack Dempsey - Associated Press)

In 2008, Ryan released the first version of his budget, the “Roadmap for America’s Future.” So while Obama and the Democrats in 2009 were pushing big plans to stimulate the economy and reshape the health-care system, Republicans had a big plan of their own all ready to go.

But as Ryan Lizza recounted in the New Yorker, Republican leaders “wanted nothing to do with his Roadmap.” Their theory was that Obama’s agenda was rapidly becoming unpopular, and the smart strategy was to attack, attack, attack. The dumbest thing they could do would be to release a grand bit of, shall we say, “right-wing social engineering” that promised to privatize Social Security, voucherize Medicare and block grant Medicaid while eliminating the capital gains tax, ending the tax deductibility of employer-based health insurance -- and more.

The Obama team made the same strategic assessment, which is why, as Obama’s poll numbers dropped, they did everything in their power to publicize Ryan and his budget. In January 2010, Obama spoke at a House Republican retreat in Baltimore, where he couldn’t stop talking up that Paul Ryan guy.

“You study this stuff and take it pretty seriously,” he said to Ryan. “I think Paul, for example, head of the Budget Committee, has looked at the budget and has made a serious proposal,” he said to Rep. Jeb Hensarling. He even gave Ryan personal compliments. “The problem we have sometimes is a media that responds only to slash-and-burn-style politics. You don’t get a lot of credit if I say, ‘You know, I think Paul Ryan’s a pretty sincere guy and has a beautiful family.’” It was a lovefest.

But it quickly became something else. A few days later, Obama’s then-budget director (and current Bloomberg View columnist) Peter Orszag dismantled Ryan’s budget at a news conference. That set the tenor for the next year, during which administration aides continued trying to raise Ryan’s profile and establish his budget as the Republican alternative -- all so they could destroy it.

Unfortunately for them, Ryan’s profile wasn’t rising fast enough. Key Republicans were still hanging back. As Robert Draper notes in his book 'Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives,' as late as the summer of 2010, House Speaker John Boehner, when questioned about Ryan's budget, said, "there are parts of it that are well done. Other parts that I have some doubts about, in terms of how good the policy is." And House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, when pressed by radio host Laura Ingraham on whether he supported the budget, wouldn't give a clear yes or no.

So Obama did something very unusual. Typically, sitting presidents ignore doomed proposals from the minority party. But on April 13, 2011, with Ryan sitting in the audience, Obama delivered a searing speech -- perhaps the toughest of his presidency to that point -- on the subject of Ryan’s budget. He said it would mean an America that “would be fundamentally different than what we’ve known throughout our history.” He called it “a vision of our future that is deeply pessimistic.”

The gambit largely worked. The news media devoted more coverage to Ryan’s budget and, perhaps more important, Republicans furiously rallied around Ryan. By pitting his presidency against Ryan and his budget, Obama helped make Ryan the de facto leader of the Republican Party.

As Mitt Romney emerged as the all-but-certain Republican presidential nominee, the Obama administration began calling Ryan’s budget the “Romney-Ryan budget.” Priorities USA, the Obama-affiliated super-PAC, dedicated its first ad to tying Romney to Ryan. “Mitt Romney says he’s on the same page as Paul Ryan, who wrote the plan to essentially end Medicare,” the ad’s narrator warned.

But it might have worked too well. The Obama team never could have predicted that its efforts would help vault Ryan into the nomination for vice president. The difference between what they reasonably hoped a strategy like this could achieve and what it actually achieved is attributable to Ryan, who has proven a tremendously skilled politician -- so skilled, in fact, that he's convinced many Republicans that the fight Obama wants is the fight they should want, too. Many of them share House Whip Kevin McCarthy's view. "It's not so smart to raise [Ryan] up by picking him as an enemy," he told Draper. "If he picks a budget fight with Paul, Paul will beat him."

The White House, obviously, disagrees. The result, to paraphrase H.L. Mencken, is that the Obama administration knew the fight they wanted, and now they’re going to get it good and hard.

Putting the Ryan budget at the center of the 2012 election has the tactical benefit of forcing Republicans to defend an unpopular proposal; more important, it has the long-term strategic benefit of potentially discrediting the Ryan budget as a political document. Prior to Ryan joining the ticket, a Romney loss seemed likely to strengthen the Republican Party’s conservative wing, because the defeat would be blamed on Romney’s moderate past. Now, if the Romney-Ryan ticket loses, it will vindicate skeptics of the party’s rightward shift, potentially strengthening the party’s moderates. That could produce a more cooperative opposition for Obama to work with in a second term.

But if Obama loses, Republicans will have won the presidency with a mandate to enact a deeply conservative agenda. Left to his own devices, Romney might have been a relatively pragmatic and cautious president. Instead, the Obama administration’s three-year effort to enshrine the Ryan budget at the heart of the Republican Party would prove to have been a crucial push toward enacting that budget into law.

It’s not so smart to raise him up by picking him as an enemy.

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Dylan Matthews · August 17, 2012