Ryan’s friends have long seen the GOP lightning rod as a leader in waiting
By Michael Leahy,
On the first Thursday of August, Paul Ryan walked out of the Longworth House Office Building with a Republican friend, Utah congressman Jason Chaffetz, who couldn’t restrain himself: “So have you talked to Beth Myers lately?” It was a reference to the woman leading Mitt Romney’s search for a running mate, with the selection thought to be imminent.
“No,” Ryan said.
The answer didn’t augur well for his friend’s prospects, thought Chaffetz, who dropped the subject.
The signs hadn’t looked promising for Ryan anywhere else. A week earlier, the Wisconsin congressman had flown to Park City, Utah, for a large gathering of Republican luminaries rallying behind an ebullient Romney. When the weekend ended, a Ryan intimate, hoping to read some vice presidential tea leaves, asked him what his time with Romney had been like. What had they talked about?
A subdued Ryan indicated there had been no time, no talk, not really. “It wasn’t much more than hello,” he said. The flatness of Ryan’s response seemed to signal he wouldn’t be tapped, the acquaintance thought.
It had been a surprise to many of Ryan’s close friends to hear the mounting speculation that he was out of the running. Most knew about a private meeting between him and Romney last autumn in Ryan’s office, where the two men had talked for more than an hour, much of it spent in a deep and freewheeling discussion of economic policy. They talked about budgets and plans for growth, discovering they weren’t in agreement about everything, even debating a couple of policy points.
But their comfort with each other struck observers as obvious. “They’re both number guys, spreadsheet guys — they were finishing each other’s thoughts,” someone with knowledge of the discussion recounted. A pleased Ryan, who had yet to endorse anyone in the Republican race, declared in private that Romney had demonstrated a knowledge that many of the other Republican candidates lacked. He then flashed an irreverent side that the public seldom glimpsed. “I don’t have to teach him economics,” he joked.
The memory of that meeting was still fresh enough that not every Ryan admirer had given up hope on his chances. Some kept pushing. For weeks, a band of high-profile conservative activists and commentators had publicly lobbied for Ryan. The 42-year-old had emerged as a potent symbol of a political wing’s aspirations and restiveness. The drive to make him the running mate over former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty and Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio — each of whom spent far more time stumping for Romney but lacked Ryan’s steely reputation for policy independence — had become a proxy in conservatives’ efforts to gain a greater voice with Romney, about whom their skepticism persists. Their efforts received a boost when editorials from the Weekly Standard and the Wall Street Journal turned up the heat on Romney, urging him to pick Ryan. By then, Romney’s aides insist now, the candidate had already privately decided to do so.
‘He’s just different’
But no one yet knew this, aside from Romney and perhaps Myers. Meanwhile, Chaffetz marveled over how coolly his friend was processing the ups and downs of the VP watch. “I realized he just never has needed anything like this, not at all — which is part of why I’ve wanted to see him run nationally,” said Chaffetz, who long before had decided that, among all the ambitious, politically adroit Republican House members, Ryan would be the one he supported were he ever to run for president. “He doesn’t operate the same way as some people. He’s just different.”
Those differences have long separated Ryan from other notable party members, deeply impressing some, though occasionally irritating others who have viewed Ryan in moments as a maverick less interested in the party’s success than his own ideological agenda. Comparatively speaking, he doesn’t do much out-of-town fundraising or campaigning on behalf of others. He prefers hurrying home to see his wife, Janna, and their three children. Once in a while, he gets away on a hunting trip, a solitary figure in a deer stand with a bow in his hand, friends say. Even there, he sometimes multitasks, receiving and sending text messages about arcane policy details that reflect the swirl of his passions. “He can channel his inner redneck, too, which we like,” says a fellow Republican, Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona. “He fishes for catfish with his bare hands. . . . And he can think about other stuff, important things, while doing it. He just has this other kind of way about him.”
He remains cloaked in that otherness, an enigma even to some of his most passionate admirers. He has yet to pass any landmark legislation, but he is revered among his boosters as a man willing to risk his career by daring to touch the issue of entitlement reform, the dangerous third rail of American politics. It is the stance — so politically charged and potentially perilous for him — that most accounts for his ascension and his image among his fans as a go-for-broke contrarian. His proposals, which have included a call to dramatically change Medicarefor Americans under the age of 55, have made him a lightning rod, with the result that many other high-profile Republicans, Romney and House Speaker John A. Boehner among them, have been careful to distance themselves from some of the specifics of his goals.
His Path to Prosperity, once called the Roadmap to America, has come to be known in many quarters as simply the Ryan Plan, all the easier for the nervous to distance themselves from it. Ryan, who was unavailable for comment, likes to remind his listeners that he had no political cover when he prepared it. He occasionally revels in his disturber’s image. “When I wrote it, I was a consensus of one,” he said last year.
“He’s willing to lose to get what he wants,” Chaffetz observes. “Not everybody is. It’s not so easy. . . . It explains a lot about why a lot of people right now are talking about what he wants them to talk about.”
A veteran of the Hill
After 13 years in Congress, Ryan’s Washington rhythms are basically inviolate. He seemingly knows every Capitol corridor. He likes sleeping in his office because, among other things, the House gymnasium is so close and everybody with whom he works out is nearby what he and his House friends, Chaffetz included, sometimes call “the campus.”
He resides in his native Janesville, Wis., when not on congressional business. But Janesville, where his father died of a heart attack when Ryan was only 16, is meant for family, selected public appearances and some constituent work. Washington — “the silly place,” Ryan sometimes calls it — has been his workplace, and the locus of his life, for nearly all his adulthood.
He got his start on Capitol Hill as a 19-year-old intern working in the mailroom of Sen. Bob Kasten (R-Wis.). That led in time to positions on congressional committees and habits he hasn’t broken since, including a staffer’s zeal for voracious research, for charts and PowerPoint presentations, and a facility for budget numbers that he recites with a savant’s glee. By his mid-20s, he had begun asking for advice about running for Congress while toiling as a speechwriter and researcher for former congressman and Republican vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp at a conservative Washington think tank. He did a brief stint as a legislative director for Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), before deciding, at 27, to leave and return to Wisconsin, soon to run for a vacant House seat. At 28, he was back in town for his swearing-in and hasn’t worked anywhere else since.
More a workhorse than a wunderkind, the young Ryan was a congressional backbencher for a long while, exhibiting a professorial absorption with fiscal issues that had yet to excite his colleagues. He had no interest, friends recall, in poll-testing ideas, convinced that his supply-side tax-cut theories, folded into deep spending cuts, would win over the public if he could only get Republican leadership to push them. He read voraciously. “We’d fly back home together,” recounts Mark Green, a former GOP congressman also from Wisconsin. “And he’d be talking about the same issues he is today — deficits, entitlements. He talked like an economist. He read treatises on economics and he had this leather briefcase stuffed to the brim with papers he wanted to get through. . . . He was looking to get something done.”
His life changed in 2006. After the GOP lost control of the House in an electoral drubbing, Republican House colleagues chose him to become the party’s ranking member of the Budget Committee, spurning several veteran lawmakers in the process. For a time, he was as tough on Republicans as Democrats. “The last time we had the majority, we simply replaced the Democratic machine with a Republican machine,” he groused last year, as Boehner prepared to be the new speaker. “There should be skepticism of us. We talked like fiscal conservatives the last time and we governed and spent like fiscal liberals.”
His famous Roadmap had already taken shape. He knew that those with reservations about it included some of Boehner’s team. He hadn’t even given them the first look at it. Instead, he sent the plan to a friend, Paul Gigot, the head of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page. Some in Boehnerland were annoyed. Asked last year why he took the unusual step of bypassing Republican leadership in favor of sending his plan to a newspaper columnist, Ryan took only a second to answer: “I figured it’s better to ask for forgiveness later than to ask for permission first,” he said in early 2011.
He realized his aggressiveness annoyed some Republicans. “I really don’t care about the personal political ramifications of these things or I wouldn’t be doing these budgets or the Roadmap in the first place,” he added. “We can’t afford to worry about hurting someone’s feelings or bruising egos. . . . You gotta be willing to lose this job to be good at it.”
Staking a claim
By late 2010, his appeal was at a zenith among House Republicans. One by one, several conservative members privately approached Ryan and urged him to run for speaker in what would amount to a conservative coup against Boehner, the party’s leader and speaker-to-be. The dissidents included Flake, who quickly sensed that a quiet Ryan, long regarded as a leader in waiting, had no appetite for the added burdens that would accompany the speakership. “He told me that if he ever ran for speaker that he would have to do the whole fundraising circuit for the party and that would put him away from his family more,” Flake recalls. “Some guys with no real chance say that kind of stuff all the time to the press. But when Ryan said it to me alone, I believed it — because I think he could’ve won and been speaker.”
Part of Flake’s confidence in Ryan’s chances had stemmed from his read of young House Republicans, many of whom view Ryan as a mentor. “Paul has come in and spent a lot of time with our [Republican] class, getting us up to speed,” Sean Duffy, a freshman congressman and fellow GOP member of Wisconsin’s delegation, said last year. “He lays out the fiscal picture and doesn’t try to oversell the Roadmap. There’s a lot of trust there. If I see an issue as a problem, I ask him, ‘What do you see as a solution?’ ”
Ryan’s subtle sway over his young House acolytes has never been lost on Boehner and others in the Republican leadership, especially in behind-the-scenes battles. Early last year, Ryan joined forces with Flake to try to force an important rules change at a private meeting of the House Republican conference. Flake, a new member of the House Appropriations Committee, had proposed a radical departure from the old ways of the committee. He called on his fellow party members to amend the committee’s rules so that any spending cuts approved would be placed into a “lockbox,” where the savings couldn’t be spent by the committee on other programs without the approval of the full House. After politely listening, Boehner urged members to reject the amendment, insisting it would unwisely tie the hands of Appropriation committee members, who roundly opposed it.
As the private debate wore on, Ryan prepared to address the group. His stature on fiscal matters guaranteed, at the very least, that more members would carefully listen to the argument on the amendment’s behalf, Flake thought. But before Ryan could speak, Boehner rose and called for a vote on the amendment, which went down to defeat. Flake viewed Boehner’s maneuver as a tacit recognition of Ryan’s burgeoning influence in the party, and the worry it sometimes sparked. “Had Paul been able to get up and speak for the amendment,” Flake says, “it would have been difficult for the speaker and others to defeat it. The freshman class especially would’ve taken their cues from Paul Ryan.”
Despite his occasional hints of defiance in the party caucus, Ryan has voted with Boehner and other establishment Republicans on most of the era’s landmark fiscal battles, especially during crises. “He’s got a very conservative voting record, but he’s not a knuckle-dragger, all right?” Boehner declared last week on Fox News, citing Ryan’s vote in favor of the 2008 Troubled Assets Relief Program bailout, which still irks some conservatives.
Ryan has departed from conservative orthodoxy on other occasions. He voted for the Medicare Part D prescription drug plan, the Obama administration’s auto bailout plan and the 2011 bipartisan spending deal that averted a government shutdown. But conservative friends such as Chaffetz who have opposed one or more of his stances prefer to see his votes not as sins but as part of Ryan’s uniquely nuanced perspective, evidence of his refusal to pander or opt for expediency, even if he runs the risk of alienating some of his longtime supporters.
“Paul and I don’t always agree,” says Chaffetz, who was so determined to aid the push for a Ryan vice presidency that he sent an endorsement note to Mike Leavitt, the former Utah governor and a Romney campaign official thought to be a possible White House chief of staff in a Romney administration. “But he is always principled. He’s not going to tell someone what they want to hear. And I’ve always respected that — I admire that principle in him.”
As much as Chaffetz admired and pushed for Ryan, he thought that a vice presidential selection was a long shot. Romney’s announcement on Aug. 11 brought a surprise. “Mitt and Paul hadn’t spent a lot of time together,” he says. “But Paul was always just Paul through it all. . . . Someone obviously liked that.”