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What does Paul Ryan want?

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Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan is all the rage today.

His Republican budget proposal has — as it did last year — stoked furious debate in the policy and political world. And Ryan has been flacking the plan relentlessly. Ryan started his day on CBS’ “This Morning” then did a “Morning Joe” hit and will appear on Erin Burnett’s CNN show this evening. (Heck, Ryan even made a slick web video laying out the stakes of the budget fight — a video in which a family is shown watching him on TV!)

Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan

All of which begs the question: What does Paul Ryan want? Or, put another way, what does the political future hold for the Wisconsin Republican?

The first thing to understand about Ryan, according to those who know him, is that he is motivated first, second and third by policy. He is not terribly political — to be kind — and has a level of disdain for the sort of rank political calculations required of people who want to climb the electoral ladder.

“This is one of those rare instances in politics where ‘What you see is what you get,’” said Republican media consultant Curt Anderson, who has done considerable political work in Wisconsin. “What Ryan wants is to save America from becoming a welfare state or going bankrupt.”

Not only does Ryan not relish politics but, not surprisingly, he has few in the way of political advisers. Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Pat Shortridge and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus are close to Ryan personally and have significant political chops. But Ryan lacks the sort of political kitchen cabinet that candidates eyeing statewide (or national) bids tend to gather around them. (Neither Shortridge nor Priebus returned emails seeking comment on Ryan’s political future.)

Ryan’s actions over the past few years make clear that his mind is focused on policy not politics. He passed up a chance to run for Senate in 2010 against Sen. Russ Feingold — Feingold lost to political newcomer Ron Johnson — and again took a pass on a Senate bid last spring when Sen. Herb Kohl (D) announced his retirement.

In turning down that race, Ryan said: “Our nation is quickly approaching a debt crisis that will do serious damage to Wisconsinites and all Americans if it is not properly addressed. I believe continuing to serve as Chairman of the House Budget Committee allows me to have a greater impact in averting this debt-fueled economic crisis than if I were to run for the United States Senate.” (You can imagine how that statement went over in the Senate!)

And then there was the speculation that he might run for president in the summer of 2011. After just a few days of chatter, Ryan shut down the possibility; “I sincerely appreciate the support from those eager to chart a brighter future for the next generation,” said Ryan. “While humbled by the encouragement, I have not changed my mind, and therefore I am not seeking our party’s nomination for president.”

Judging from that series of no-go’s, it seems clear that Ryan has little interest in running for or serving in the Senate — had he run this year, informed Wisconsin sources suggest, he would have been the clear frontrunner in the GOP primary and a favorite in the general election.

And, that Ryan took a pass on a presidential bid at a moment when the field seemed to be wide open for someone preaching the sort of debt and spending mantra that he has come to own suggests his eye isn’t on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue either.

It’s harder to divine what it is Ryan does want. Those closest to him refuse to speculate. But, one senior House Republican strategist who has watched Ryan’s career closely has a theory.

“I think we are more likely to see Paul Ryan become the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee than a senatorial or even presidential candidate,” said the source. “This is a guy with a real passion for policy. He is no political animal despite the fact that many would like him to be.”

Ryan, the chairman of the Budget Committee, is currently the fifth ranking Republican on Ways and Means. The committee’s chairman, Michigan Rep. Dave Camp, will be term limited out of that post at the end of 2014 and Ryan is considered a top contender for the gavel.

Said another veteran Republican consultant of the possibility of a presidential run by Ryan: “I think he is a much better engineer than conductor. I don’t expect that he would make a good candidate nor that he will run.”

Ryan is a hard politician for many people to wrap their minds around because he is different than most of the rising stars who pass through Washington.

Like them, Ryan is quite ambitious. But his ambitions are directed toward policy not politics. Ryan is — and wants to be — a national figure. But, being known as the leading voice on budget matters is, at least in Ryan’s mind, more distinctive than being one of the many people aspiring to be the next big political thing. In that view, he is a rare breed indeed.

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