The Fix loves a good political profile. Little details sprinkled across a well-reported 6,000-word story go a long way toward explaining the individuals shaping the political and policy debates in Washington.
With Mitt Romney’s Saturday announcement of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) as his vice presidential running mate, there isn’t a story more indispensable to understanding the new member of the GOP ticket than Ryan Lizza’s recent profile of him in the New Yorker. The story tracks Ryan from his youth, through his early days as a rank-and-file member of the House, to his emergence as a leading voice in the Republican Party.
But we know you’re busy. So we’ve read the story and plucked out the most telling passages. Without further ado, below are the most revealing parts.
A once-promising relationship with President Obama that soured: In January 2010, Obama visited the House Republican retreat, where he said he agreed with some ideas in Ryan’s budget proposal and even signed an autograph for Ryan’s young daughter. But over time, the promise for a working bipartisan relationship gave way to bickering. There were two turning points: First, then-White House budget director Peter Orszag blasted Ryan’s plan in a 2010 press briefing. Then, in April 2011, two days before Ryan’s budget passed the House, Obama ripped the proposal in a speech at George Washington University. The move surprised and irked Ryan:
Ryan sat in the front row as the President shredded his plan. “I believe it paints a vision of our future that’s deeply pessimistic,” Obama said. “There’s nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. And I don’t think there’s anything courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don’t have any clout on Capitol Hill.”
Ryan seemed genuinely shocked. During a radio interview later in the day, he complained that Obama had called him “un-American,” and he objected to the charge that he was “pitting children with autism or Down syndrome against millionaires and billionaires” and “ending America as we know it.” Ryan told me, “I was expecting some counteroffer of some kind. What we got was the gauntlet of demagoguery.”
Tension with Boehner: In 2011, Ryan’s growing influence within the party and alignment with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and the self-proclaimed “Young Guns” in the House GOP meant headaches for the House speaker in the deficit negotiations. Speaker John Boehner’s chief of staff would cast blame on Ryan, according to a 2012 book:
Ryan had aligned himself with Cantor and the self-proclaimed Young Guns, who made life miserable for Boehner, their nominal leader. They were the most enthusiastic supporters of the Ryan plan, while Boehner had publicly criticized it. Cantor’s aides quietly promoted stories about Boehner’s alleged squishiness on issues dear to conservatives, and encouraged Capitol Hill newspapers to consider the idea that Cantor would one day replace Boehner. As the Republican negotiations with the White House fizzled in the summer of 2011, Barry Jackson, Boehner’s chief of staff and a veteran of the Bush White House and Republican politics, blamed not just Cantor, who in media accounts of the failed deal often plays the role of villain, but Ryan as well.
“That’s what Cantor and Ryan want,” Jackson told a group of Republican congressmen, according to Robert Draper’s recent book, “Do Not Ask What Good We Do.” “They see a world where it’s Mitch McConnell”—as Senate Majority Leader—“Speaker Cantor, a Republican President, and then Paul Ryan can do whatever he wants to do. It’s not about this year. It’s about getting us to 2012, defeating the President, and Boehner being disgraced.”
A turning point early in life: The sudden death of Ryan’s father from a heart attack when Ryan was 16 prompted a coming-of-age that typically doesn’t arrive until a few years later in life. It transformed Ryan into a voracious reader and a curious thinker and would lay the foundation for his later political beliefs:
His father’s death also provoked the kind of existential soul-searching that most kids don’t undertake until college. “I was, like, ‘What is the meaning?’ ” he said. “I just did lots of reading, lots of introspection. I read everything I could get my hands on.” Like many conservatives, he claims to have been profoundly affected by Ayn Rand. After reading “Atlas Shrugged,” he told me, “I said, ‘Wow, I’ve got to check out this economics thing.’ What I liked about her novels was their devastating indictment of the fatal conceit of socialism, of too much government.” He dived into Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman.
Ryan’s outside-in strategy: Part of Ryan’s success lies in his understanding of the power of building support from conservatives outside Congress as a means toward building it inside the chamber. He deployed the strategy in 2008, when he was promoting A Roadmap for America’s Future:
In May, 2008, working with two other young Republicans, Kevin McCarthy, of California, and Eric Cantor, of Virginia, who had watched the immolation of the congressional wing of their party during the Bush years, Ryan remade his budget into something he called the Roadmap for America’s Future. Rather than just build support inside Congress, he promoted the Roadmap through the rich network of conservative media and think tanks that helped influence Republican members. “I thought fiscal policy was on the wrong path,” he told me.
And once again in 2010:
In July, Boehner distanced himself from the plan. But Ryan’s outside-in strategy, of building support among conservatives who would pressure Republican leaders to embrace his ideas, started to pay off. An editorial in the Weekly Standard stated that “Republicans should embrace Ryan’s Road Map.” Dick Armey, the former congressional leader, who had become a Tea Party organizer, demanded that Republicans have the “courage” to back Ryan’s plan. Boehner’s position insured that most Republican candidates didn’t listen to Armey’s advice, and in 2010 they campaigned against Obama’s alleged cuts to Medicare rather than for Ryan’s plan to end the program.
Still, after the election, with the Republican Party racing rightward, Ryan provided an intellectual blueprint: there were eighty-seven Republican freshmen who wanted to starve the government but had no clear idea how to do so. In December, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, Sarah Palin endorsed the Roadmap, and every potential Republican Presidential candidate knew that he or she, too, would have to take a position on it. In January, 2011, Ryan was chosen to give the official Republican response to the President’s State of the Union speech. “We hold to a couple of simple convictions,” he said. “Endless borrowing is not a strategy; spending cuts have to come first.”
Influenced by Jack Kemp and William R. Hart: Hart was the professor at Miami University in Ohio who introduced Ryan to the National Review and recommended him for a congressional internship. Former House member Kemp, himself a vice presidential nominee in 1996, stirred Ryan’s enthusiasm for politics and policy, and emerged as a key mentor for Ryan when he was in his 20s:
In 1991, Hart recommended Ryan for an internship in the office of Senator Bob Kasten, a Wisconsin Republican. Two years later, Ryan went to work as a speechwriter and policy analyst for Jack Kemp, who led Empower America, an organization then in the vanguard of making policy for supply-side conservatives who were pushing Republicans rightward in their views on taxes and the size of government. “Jack Kemp is what sucked me into public policy, public service, and politics,” Ryan said. “He called it the battle of ideas, and I just really got into it.”
Hart told me, “He thought the world of Jack Kemp. I got the impression that Jack Kemp became something of a second father.”