By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, December 7, 2010; 8:00 PM
In a joint appearance last week at the American Enterprise Institute with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks called him "the most intellectually formidable member of the House."
"That," Ryan said, interrupting, "ain't saying a whole lot."
Ryan was being modest. As the incoming chairman of the House Budget Committee - and the Republicans' go-to guy on all matters fiscal - his intellect could determine whether Washington over the next two years finally forges a solution to its dysfunction, or whether government paralysis leads us to the point where a European-style debt crisis is unavoidable.
For the 40-year-old Wisconsinite who spent the past dozen years as a backbencher and then in the opposition, this is an awesome responsibility. At times, he seems equal to the task. "Compromise is not an ugly word," he told reporters at a breakfast last week arranged by the Christian Science Monitor. "The way I see it is if you're getting an inch in the right direction, take the inch even though you can't get the mile." He acknowledged that "this fix to our debt, whenever it happens, will have to be bipartisan, no matter what."
Yet the young legislator also feels the pull of the Tea Party, and of colleagues who would rather hurl labels at the White House and the Democrats than work out a solution. At the same breakfast, Ryan declared, "This is a time where I think instead of muddling the differences, philosophically speaking, between the two parties, we need to accentuate them . . . to give the country a real clear choice" in 2012. He accused Obama and the Democrats of seeking "a social democracy, a cradle-to-grave European-type welfare state" and putting the United States on "the road to serfdom."
Unfortunately, in his first test of leadership, Ryan's warrior instincts prevailed. He joined the two other House Republicans on the fiscal commission and voted against the bipartisan Bowles-Simpson plan to avoid a debt crisis.
That was despite his acknowledgement that there were "really good policy things" in the proposal. He also admitted to me that he isn't likely to get a better deal than Bowles-Simpson in the next two years. He certainly isn't going to find a better starting point for negotiation.
But Ryan indicated that he would rather pick a fight than work toward a fix. His vote put him in the extraordinary position of being more of a purist than Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), usually the Senate's Dr. No on fiscal issues. "We cannot wait for another election," Coburn pleaded. "We cannot wait until we get more of what we want."
So, Ryan has had a disappointing start, but I still have hope that his better instincts will prevail. He's one of the more amiable figures in the House; a lanky former congressional staffer with sad eyes and protruding ears, he introduces himself to everybody as just "Paul." He has, for the most part, avoided the name-calling that so delights his peers. He's a courageous figure - he's taken intense heat for his plan to privatize Medicare - and he seems genuinely alarmed about the nation's finances. "We cannot skirt the edges of this problem, we must truly change course, and we don't have the luxury of waiting until the day after tomorrow to make this choice," he said at the AEI event.
We don't have the luxury of waiting for another election, either. If Ryan holds out for unattainable perfection, he'll be ruling out chances for a perfectly good compromise.
Brooks, in his appearance with the congressman, said he worried that Ryan would "squander this moment" to make progress on the debt. By casting the debate as a choice between Ryan's policies and serfdom, Brooks said, "it makes compromise impossible."
Ryan stuck to his view that "we owe the country a choice." Then, before Brooks got his time to speak again, Ryan excused himself for a vote in the House.
That's too bad, for the new chairman would do well to reflect on what was said. "My problem with the Republican Party now," Brooks said, "is that if you offered them 80-20, they'd say no. If you offered them 90-10, they'd say no. If you offered them 99-1, they'd say no."
Fortunately, it's not too late for Ryan to rediscover his sensible inner self.