But knowledge is not action. Over the past two years, as others labored to bring Democrats and Republicans together to tackle the nation’s $16 trillion debt, Ryan sat on the sidelines, glumly predicting their efforts were doomed to fail because they strayed too far from his own low-tax, small-government vision.
As a member of an independent debt commission in 2010, Ryan voted against a bipartisan plan to cut borrowing by $4 trillion over the next decade by raising taxes as well as cutting spending. Through much of 2011, he insisted publicly that a “grand bargain” on the budget was impossible, even as House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) pursued a deal with President Obama. And Ryan asked Boehner not to name him to the congressional “supercommittee” that took a final stab at bipartisan compromise last fall.
As chairman of the House Budget Committee, Ryan did draft a blueprint for wiping out deficits by 2040. And he has earned wide praise for tackling Medicare, the nation’s biggest budget problem, despite the political risk.
But as Washington braces for another push after the election to solve the nation’s budget problems, independent budget analysts, Democrats and some Republicans say Ryan has done more to burnish his conservative credentials than to help bridge the yawning political divide that stands as the most profound barrier to action.
“If you start with the premise, as Ryan does, that our current path is unsustainable, then you have to be willing to do something about it,” said Robert L. Bixby of the bipartisan Concord Coalition, which champions lower deficits. “Is it more important to prevent the debt from rising or to stick with your principles of lower taxes? So far, Ryan has chosen the purist route.”
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), a close friend of Boehner’s who has been working with Democrats to try to bring a bipartisan debt-reduction plan to a vote in the Senate, agreed that Ryan had done little to advance the debate — “other than [offer] his budget, which was kind of a reiteration” of the blueprint he had previously proposed.
“I’ve never viewed Paul as one who gets into the fray from the negotiating standpoint,” Chambliss said. “I don’t mean that he can’t do it. I just mean that he’s chosen not to.”
Ryan declined to comment for this article. In an interview in November, long before his selection as Mitt Romney’s running mate, Ryan acknowledged his decision to stay away from the budget bargaining table in 2011, arguing that the supercommittee — and most other attempts at bipartisanship — were “a futile exercise” as long as Obama was in the White House.
Instead of pursing compromise, Ryan said that he had spent much of last year nurturing what he saw as “an emerging consensus on tax reform and Medicare reform” that could only take hold if Republicans reclaimed the presidency.