Just prior to the Wisconsin Republican presidential primary, Mitt Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) hit the campaign trail together. During their travels the pair clearly had a ball. At one point, I was told, Ryan was busy in the car — “eating cherry pie with the governor.” In other words, this was a buddy movie in the making. The report below is based on dozens of interviews and conversations over the last year or so with those involved, both inside the campaigns and in the conservative think tank community.
Much has been written about the dramatic days leading up to the Ryan announcement. But that is the end of the story, one that began well before Romney had sewn up the nomination. To think that Romney capitulated to voices on the far right or that one pundit or another influenced the pick is to ignore the year-long building of the Romney-Ryan team.
Ryan, a protégé of conservative intellectuals Bill Bennett and Jack Kemp, has always been a man in love with ideas. Beginning in 2007 with development of the Roadmap for America ( a comprehensive tax-entitlement-health-care agenda), Ryan was convinced that Republicans had to be the reforming party of mature, big ideas. Early on (before George W. Bush left office) Ryan saw the looming debt crisis and the consequences of fiscal irresponsibility if new policies weren’t adopted. In 2011, many conservatives, primarily at conservative think tanks and publications, hoped Ryan would be the standard bearer of those ideas as a presidential contender. When Ryan finally decided in late August against a presidential run, his supporters were disappointed. But Ryan, the inner circle and outside advisers (again, mostly from think tanks) were determined to do something never before done in presidential politics: Shape the race from outside the campaign.
Romney was the candidate doing his best to wade through a primary race without being hijacked by the far right. Within the Romney camp, as is the case in campaigns in which political consultants are numerous, there was great reservation about putting on the table a definitive entitlement plan or a comprehensive tax plan. Why give the Democrats something to shoot at? Why let themselves be outflanked on the right in the primary?
Ryan, watching from outside the race, took matters into his own hands. In late fall of 2011 and through early 2012, Ryan at the Heritage Foundation on the politics of division, at the Reagan Library on health care, at a Wisconsin free market think tank on capitalism, and in numerous interviews, op-ed’s and townhalls made the case that Republicans should offer a choice between two visions: an opportunity society and a dependency society. The message was clear — Romney’s campaign should be putting out concrete ideas and developing a positive vision, in part so Romney could claim a mandate once elected.
I interviewed Ryan in May, shortly after Romney gave a speech laying out some free market health-care reforms. Ryan praised the speech and gently suggested Romney needed to keep offering specifics. Ryan and his staff would often refer to the need to “amp up” or “turn up the volume” on policies Romney was offering. He was, in essence, already helping Romney to refine his message.
As Ryan’s public speaking moved the agenda, he and his staff privately conferred with Romney, and to some extent Romney’s advisers. The relationship between Ryan and Romney grew as they collaborated on policy. Romney did become more specific, on both Medicare reform and then tax reform.In mid December, 2011, Ryan rolled out the Ryan-Wyden Medicare plan. In February Romney put out his, which looked remarkably like Ryan’s. Later in February, Romney unveiled his tax plan, which incorporated the basic concept behind the Simpson-Bowles and Ryan plans, namely lower rates and fewer credits, deductions and exclusions for the wealthy.
Romney prizes his problem solving skills. He is an intellectual rather than intuitive politician, so it is not hard to understand how the relationship grew. In their “60 Minutes” interview that aired Sunday night Romney explained, “You know, we’ve been working together for a while and, over the last year, Paul and I have come together on some policy issues and sat down and discussed those things. I was impressed with his understanding of the issues that we were facing and also his political acumen. But then we spent some time on the campaign trail. I got to meet his wife and three children and was very impressed.” That is as accurate a summary of the last year of the Romney-Ryan collaboration as any we have heard directly from either candidate.
Romney may not have officially made up his mind on his VP until he returned from Europe in early August, but Ryan had the inside track and the bond with Romney that no other VP contender enjoyed. Romney wasn’t going to be buffaloed by timid consultants. As he related in the “60 Minutes” interview, “[Ryan] is a man who’s also very analytical. He’s a policy guy. People know him as a policy guy. That’s one of the reasons he has such respect on both sides of the aisle. I’m a policy guy, believe it or not. I love policy. I love solving tough problems. And we face real challenges around the world, places like Syria, Egypt, Iran. We’ve got real problems. Domestically, you have 23 million Americans out of work or stopped looking for work.” There really was no other contender for the No. 2 spot who had those qualities, and whom Romney respected to such a degree.
The pairing seems to have worked out better than expected. Reports have swirled about which Romney advisers preferred which VP candidate. But if some on the Romney team had doubts, no one will now fess up to being opposed to what has become a near-perfect match. As one Romney aide put it today, “They were made for each other.”
In Wisconsin on Sunday evening, an emotional Ryan greeted a crowd estimated to be about 10,000 strong. In the give and take on the stump, the two have similar messages and complimentary personalities — Ryan earnest and sunny, Romney hard-charging and emphatic.
As they tag-teamed Bob Schieffer in the “60 Minutes” interview, you could see they were fully in sync. On tax reform Romney told Schieffer that “if you look at the top 1 percent or 5 percent or quartile, whatever, they pay the largest share of taxes. and that’s not something which I would propose making smaller.” Ryan immediately added: “What we’re saying is, take away the tax shelters that are uniquely enjoyed by people in the top tax brackets so they can’t shelter as much money from taxation. [That] should lower tax rates for everybody to make America more competitive.”
And both aptly defended conservative Medicare reform:
ROMNEY: There’s only one president that I know of in history that robbed Medicare, $716 billion to pay for a new risky program of his own that we call Obamacare. Think about it. What Paul Ryan and I have talked about is saving Medicare, is providing people greater choice in Medicare, making sure it’s there for current seniors. No changes, by the way, for current seniors, or those nearing retirement. But looking for young people down the road and saying, “We’re going to give you a bigger choice.” In America, the nature of this country has been giving people more freedom, more choices. That’s how we make Medicare work down the road.
RYAN: My mom is a Medicare senior in Florida. Our point is we need to preserve their benefits, because government made promises to them that they’ve organized their retirements around. In order to make sure we can do that, you must reform it for those of us who are younger. And we think these reforms are good reforms. That have bipartisan origins. They started from the Clinton commission in the late ’90s.
It is that policy teamwork and intellectual compatibility that Romney wanted, and frankly needed. And whatever the GOP activists and pundits were saying, Romney (never one to pay much attention to right-wing media which largely fought his nomination tooth and nail) wasn’t listening all that closely. To his credit he left no doubt who is running his campaign.