Many political reporters see every event as a horse race. Who is ahead? Who’s behind? Whose team are you on? Unfortunately, they miss a lot or misread a lot. The failure to take seriously deep philosophical issues and matters of character renders political reporting devoid of content and ultimately unhelpful in understanding the political process and the players in it.

Hence, you get analysis like this: “If anything, the vote [on the fiscal cliff] suggests that [Rep. Paul] Ryan will play nice with the establishment in the coming years, hoping to shore up early support for 2016, while [Sen. Marco] Rubio will continue to play to the grassroots base that put him on the radar in his 2010 Senate race.” The notion that Ryan is with the “establishment” as opposed to operating on his own philosophical standards simply isn’t accurate. That is not how Ryan approaches these things.

Rep. Paul Ryan (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)


To understand Ryan it is important to listen to what he says. For many politicians this is a waste of time, and you will gain no insight from a string of sound bites. But Ryan, to a larger degree than most elected officials, has a framework for policy choices and big-picture vision for how to accomplish it. He is not shy about spelling it out. In a radio interview with Hugh Hewitt he explains:

We had been hit with a $4.4 trillion dollar tax increase yesterday, and I had the opportunity to knock it down by $3.8 trillion dollars. That means 98% of the country … [doesn’t] get hit with a tax increase. I wanted 100% of the country not to get hit with a tax increase. The problem is, current law spoke otherwise. President Obama held the card on that. And so we were able to knock it down by $3.8 trillion. I’ll also say that John Boehner originally offered $800 billion in higher revenues. This gives Obama $600 billion. So we actually moved it in the right direction. And I did not see a better deal coming, given that the Senate was 89-8 in favor of this deal. It was obviously, you know, I’ve been legislating here for a while, that we were not going to get a better deal.

In this Ryan also reveals his character: “And if you think something should pass, because I think if we failed to pass this, it would have been a disaster. If you think something should pass, then you should vote for it. And you know, I know a lot of people in Congress were saying I hope somebody else votes for it so I don’t have to. Well, I just don’t take things like that. If you think something needs to pass, then you vote for it.”

For Ryan,  the heavy lifting starts now. He, if you recall, wasn’t “with” the establishment on entitlement reform; he moved the establishment ot follow his lead. Now he sees an opportunity to again set the terms of debate: “His excuse of having a higher tax rate on wealthy people is gone. He got it. That’s what the law did. We tried to prevent it. We couldn’t. He’s got it. Now there are no excuses left. And so I like the idea of getting the excuse behind us so that we can now solely focus on spending, which really is the issue here.”

Ryan no doubt will build on past entitlement reform and discretionary spending plans. Having twice been the author of the only budget to pass either chamber, he is well equipped to translate his pro-opportunity, pro-free-market vision into a budget document. He is also fully prepared for the predictable yelps from those who oppose any significant spending reform.

Those who took a different tack in voting against the fiscal cliff bill should explain why it was preferable to let the tax rates increase on everyone. It is not enough to explain what bill in an ideal world you would have preferred; the question is why in the circumstances presented you made the choice you did. That’s a question the grass-roots Republicans, when they stop to think about it, might consider in figuring out who is the true conservative ground breaker and who is acting like just another pol.