The Washington Post

A bright future for Ryan, or the loser’s tag?

Romney hugs Ryan in Boston after conceding the presidency on Nov. 7. (Alex Wong/GETTY IMAGES)

Paul Ryan jogged down the stairs of his campaign plane at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport late Tuesday morning to meet his running mate, Mitt Romney, part of a final, frantic Election Day dash for swing-state voters.

Crossing the tarmac, he found himself a few hundred yards away from the plane of the man Ryan had hoped to oust from the White House: Vice President Biden, who had arrived minutes earlier for an unannounced eleventh-hour visit.

Unfortunately for Ryan, Air Force Two still remains beyond his reach.

After Romney and Ryan’s defeat Tuesday night, the seven-term Wisconsin Republican will return to Capitol Hill with no clear flight path, a wealth of options and a host of questions about his political future.

Ryan, 42, could decide that the House offers the best place to pursue his ambitions. As chairman of the House Budget Committee, he has secured a place among his party’s intellectual leaders, speaking out on how to rein in entitlement costs and cut government spending. Staying in the midst of the action could keep him in the public eye, but it also carries the risk of dragging him back into the gridlocked skirmishing that has earned Congress such consistently low marks in public opinion polls.

He could choose to leave Congress and head for the quieter quarters of a think tank or the megaphone of the lecture circuit, if he wants to gear up early for a 2016 presidential bid of his own. But few nominees, let alone presidents, have traveled that path to the White House. Ronald Reagan, in 1980, was the last president to be elected from private life rather than from a public office.

Will the GOP ticket’s loss tarnish Ryan in some way? Ryan’s backers say no. So have some in the media, such as New York Magazine’s John Heilemann, whose Sunday story about Ryan carried the headline, “Win or Lose, Paul Ryan’s GOP Future Is Bright.”

Weekly Standard columnist Bill Kristol, one of Ryan’s most ardent supporters, predicted that the Wisconsin Republican is not going to follow in the footsteps of other unsuccessful vice-presidential nominees. He is “not going to do what John Edwards did in ’04, just to be an outside figure campaigning for president,” Kristol said. “He’s not going to be a Palin.”

Rather, he argued, Ryan is likely to stay in the House and play a hand in negotiating the fiscal deals that need to be made or pushing for conservative alternatives, because even with an Obama victory, “something has to happen on taxes and entitlements and the deficit.”

Kristol sees Ryan as determined to pursue his agenda of fiscal restraint. “He’s in it for the policy,” Kristol said. “He’s in it for the governing. . . . He’s an able guy. He can do a lot of things in a lot of places.”

Even in defeat, other Ryan backers say, the Wisconsin Republican has already had an outsize role in shaping the party’s positions. Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative National Review, contends that Ryan ultimately was more successful in pushing Romney to the right than Romney was in bringing his running mate closer to the center.

Ryan’s path to the GOP nomination in 2016 — should he choose to run — would not necessarily be an easy one. With Obama leaving office, both parties will engage in free-for-all primaries. On the GOP side, challengers would undoubtedly seek to brand Ryan as a failed candidate rather than a rising star.

“Republican presidential politics famously has the next-in-line dynamic,” Lowry said, discussing Ryan’s chances. “Having been the vice-presidential nominee would perhaps give him that status, but I’m not sure about that. . . . In Republican politics, for better or worse, you want to be the establishment front-runner, and I just think it’s too soon to say” whether Ryan would grab that position.

Perhaps clearer than Ryan’s future is the effect that he had on the course of the White House race.

When Romney tapped Ryan in August to serve as his running mate, Democrats argued that the Ryan pick would hand their party a win on the issue of Medicare, the popular entitlement program that the Wisconsin Republican in his sweeping budget blueprint sought to overhaul. Polls last year showed a clear majority of Americans opposed Ryan’s plan.

Republicans contended that Romney’s decision to elevate Ryan would electrify the GOP base and serve as an opportunity to transform the campaign into a debate over “big issues” such as debt reduction and entitlement reform.

That big-issue debate might not have come to fruition, as both candidates set their sights on the other side’s gaffes and missteps. But Ryan and his plan to overhaul Medicare did not, polling has shown, prove to be the liability that Democrats had hoped they would be. Despite scores of Democratic campaign ads warning that Ryan would “end Medicare as we know it,” Republicans maintained a clear lead over Democrats among seniors.

Among the possible reasons for that edge: Some voters gave Ryan credit for tackling the program’s fiscal problems, while Democrats had yet to convince them that they had any sort of plan for making sure that the popular program remains solvent.

“In Paul Ryan, you have somebody who’s actually worked across the aisle and put together a comprehensive plan and at least tried to deal with this issue,” Romney senior adviser Kevin Madden said. “And I think people respect that — that he’s actually taken on something that is universally recognized by both parties as an important issue that’s going to affect the fiscal health of the country.”

In terms of the electoral map, Ryan did not succeed in putting his home state of Wisconsin into the Republican win column, as many had hoped — a particularly disappointing outcome after Republican Scott Walker’s sweeping wins in the 2010 governor’s race and the subsequent recall effort.

Ryan also campaigned vigorously in the swing state of Ohio, where he spent four years as a student at Miami University. He boosted Romney’s chances in the closely contested state, which many election strategists said was essential for a Romney victory. But last night, Ohio joined Wisconsin as a blue state for 2012.

Although Ryan did not turn out to be the “game changer” that conservatives had hoped, he energized the party base as well as his Capitol Hill colleagues, such as Rep. Tim Griffin (R-Ark.).

Griffin, a freshman elected in the GOP’s stunning takeover of the House in 2010, has come to view Ryan as among the most compelling voices of their party. In August, after early reports of Romney’s pick began rolling in, Griffin stayed up until the wee hours of the morning tweeting his support for Ryan.

“I think it says a lot about the intellectual firepower of a lot of our folks in the House that he was chosen, particularly because of his many innovative and solution-oriented ideas,” Griffin said. “I think it says so much that he was chosen from amongst us in the House. He’s a real leader.”

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