Although the Ryan budget failed in the Senate and never became law, that moment served to define the path that the national Republican Party would take in the era of the tea party. Ryan, holding nothing but a committee gavel and with power to offer only a broad spending outline, has become the leading ideological thinker among congressional Republicans. His budget proposal, once called the “Road Map to the Future” and later renamed the “Path to Prosperity,” became the central plank in Republicans’ rhetoric about the role of government in the 21st century. Criticizing Ryan’s plan was seen as akin to political treachery; embracing it — as Mitt Romney did early last year — became essential for any aspiring GOP presidential nominee.
With his selection of Ryan as his running mate, Romney has sealed Ryan’s place among Republicans and made his austere, and controversial, budget proposal the defining policy issue of the fall campaign against President Obama. A quintessential creature of Washington, Ryan, 42, has spent the past two decades building toward this point, slowly but surely working his way from congressional internships to think-tank jobs to jumping into a House campaign just as a seat came open 14 years ago. The stage he mounted Saturday, however, is the biggest he has yet commanded, and it is unclear how he will handle the national spotlight.
His friends say Ryan is perfectly situated for this role, arguing that he knows the federal budget better than anyone.
“There is no one who understands the challenges facing our nation and our economy better than Paul Ryan,” Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), a close Ryan ally, said Saturday. “Paul has dedicated his professional life to tackling our nation’s debt crisis and saving the American dream for future generations.”
Democrats contend that his proposals, particularly one that would transform Medicare into a partially privatized system, present a rich target for Obama and their congressional candidates to attack. Within minutes of Ryan’s speech in Virginia on Saturday, House Democrats sent out a fundraising missive asking for support to let voters know about the “Romney-Ryan plan.”
Ryan’s first challenge will be figuring out how to handle the intensity of the campaign, a test he has not previously had to face. Since winning a contested 1998 primary, Ryan has regularly coasted to reelection with more than 60 percent of the vote in his suburban Milwaukee swing district. A father of three young children, Ryan eschewed the game of politics and almost never undertook campaign trips to benefit GOP candidates across the country. He is a neophyte when it comes to speaking before thousands of people, as he will be asked to do repeatedly this fall. He is most at home debating Democrats in a committee room or giving a lecture, with charts and a PowerPoint presentation always handy, before the conservative Heritage Foundation.