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.”