In the first interview with Mitt Romney and his newly announced running mate, Paul Ryan, on “60 Minutes,” the candidate said the first and most important factor he considered when deciding on Ryan was whether or not he was ready to be president.
But beyond that, what kind of leader has Ryan been, and what kind of leader would he be if he were to one day hold the nation’s highest office?
For the seven-term congressman, it’s not entirely clear. Ryan has been called the “ideological leader” of the Republican party by President Obama, and his ideas have galvanized both its establishment and the Tea Party wings, so much so that some see him as the most influential member of the GOP. By now most know Ryan as an analytical, policy-driven lawmaker unafraid to push traditional thinking when it comes to his ideas, which have been described (depending on the speaker) as everything from bold and courageous to extremist and radical.
But he has also never held executive office, making it more difficult to determine how he’d lead in such a role. Before being elected to Congress in 1998, the now 42-year-old Wisconsinite worked for a conservative advocacy group, as a Congressional aide and as a “marketing consultant” for his family’s construction business. He is chairman of the House Budget Committee.
Besides the influence of his ideas, what has attracted so many in the Republican party to Ryan? He is frequently noted for having a charismatic, earnest demeanor and for being smart, as it’s said repeatedly: One cannot read any profile of Ryan without being reminded of his “ostentatious wonkery” or his own “confidence in his intellectual capacity.” We hear about him leading congressional staffers through hard-core morning workouts and requiring his interns to read Ayn Rand’s books. (He is apparently distancing himself from the controversial author now.)
But those are examples of his personality traits, philosophical interests and personal pursuits more than elements of his leadership style. What is known about Ryan’s approach to leading is that he works in specifics, far more, it seems, than the man with whom he shares a ticket. “If you’re going to criticize, then you should propose,” he told writer Ryan Lizza in a recent New Yorker profile, noting also that leaders cannot “run on vague platitudes and generalities.” The Romney-Ryan campaign should now be held to that standard.
He is viewed as a master opinion builder who has gone from receiving tepid support for his policies (his first draft of a budget in 2007 “was so extreme that forty out of two hundred and two Republicans voted against it,” Lizza writes) to becoming the vice presidential candidate for his party. One way he has done this is not just by the sheer force of his ideas, but by using an “outside-in strategy,” as Lizza describes it, “building support among conservatives who would pressure Republican leaders to embrace his ideas.” Even as a lawmaker in his mid-30s, Ryan found ways to exert influence, urging President George W. Bush to advocate for privatizing Social Security, long seen as the “third rail” of American politics.
Perhaps more than anything, what’s repeatedly said of Ryan—and that he has said himself—is that he lacks the same personal ambition many politicians have, putting policy before career aspirations. Romney made that very comment in the Sunday “60 Minutes” interview, saying “this is a guy who’s a real leader,” differentiating that from all the “people who go to Washington or go to their state houses with a personal ambition in mind.”
He sounded a familiar refrain. As Jonathan Chait wrote in an April profile in New York, “Ryan says, and many political reporters believe, that he is immune to the political concerns that distract his colleagues.” The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza wrote in March that “he has a level of disdain for the sort of rank political calculations required of people who want to climb the electoral ladder.” He quotes a senior Republican strategist who says “[Ryan] is no political animal despite the fact that many would like him to be.”
Will that view change now that he has accepted the call to become the vice president? Possibly. Yet it may be that Ryan sincerely feels Romney will adopt his ideas, and that those ideas will have a better shot at passing if he’s on the ticket. Of course, one could also argue—as some have—that Ryan could do more to advance his ideas from his perch as House Budget Committee chairman than in a position that’s been famously called “not worth a bucket of warm spit.” Is accepting the running-mate nod a sign Ryan may have dreams of a higher job?
Who knows. Either way, the coming months are sure to tell us more about not only the policies Ryan has championed, but how he’d lead were he to one day hold the second-highest office in the land.
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