The Washington Post

Paul Ryan tells his story in convention speech, but skips the wonky parts

This is already Rep. Paul Ryan’s convention, an admiring deep-red gaggle at which he has been regularly compared to Republican icons such as Jack Kemp, Ronald Reagan and Abraham Lincoln.

But it is not Ryan’s party yet. And it is certainly not his country yet: Both still have to be convinced of his ambitious vision to remake government.

And so, on Wednesday night, Ryan began repeating the sales pitch that has defined his life in politics. It starts with the man, not the numbers. The Wisconsin congressman has adopted a campaign persona that plays up his regular-guy status and plays down his reputation as the GOP’s head nerd.

“My dad used to say to me: ‘Son, you have a choice. You can be part of the problem, or you can be part of the solution,’ ” Ryan said as he accepted his party’s nomination for vice president.

Since Mitt Romney chose Ryan as his running mate, there has been little sign of the Budget Committee chairman who wants to reengineer Medicare and who wades confidently through billions and trillions. Instead, Ryan casts himself more simply, as a football-loving family man from the Midwest who hunts deer and catches catfish. During his last big speech, the largest number involved in his personal appeal was 67 — the number of his cousins.

This approach is useful because it does not highlight the differences between Ryan’s big ideas and Romney’s. But it is also a version of a well-honed pitch that has carried Ryan to success in Washington.

He has untraditional ideas about reshaping government, but he takes pains to show that there is nothing untraditional about himself.

“I live on the same block where I grew up. We belong to the same parish where I was baptized. Janesville is that kind of place,” Ryan said Wednesday night, in a high-profile speech that cited his mother as an example of entre­pre­neur­ship and his grandmother as a symbol of his commitment to Medicare.

The delegates and party bosses here have a businesslike relationship with Romney, their presidential nominee: They had a job opening, and he was the best-credentialed applicant. Ryan is something different. He is popular enough to reflect popularity onto the man who chose him.

“It gives confidence. And it gives us hope. It was more of a complete picture” once Romney chose Ryan, said Kim Lehman, a national committeewoman from Johnston, Iowa.

Were the roots of Lehman’s feelings in the details of Ryan’s famous House budget? For people who are now younger than 55, that blueprint would get rid of today’s Medicare and instead offer a government subsidy, which could be used to buy coverage from Medicare or private insurers.

“I really can’t answer that,” Lehman said. She didn’t know enough about it. But she said she trusts Ryan.

“People vote for people,” she said. Not budgets.

That idea has been at the heart of Ryan’s run for vice president as he has sought to underline his good-people credentials. The very first words of his first solo campaign stop were about football: “Are there any Packer fans here?” He was speaking in Iowa, which is not Green Bay Packer territory, so there weren’t many.

But Ryan was setting a tone. In his campaign appearances, the great passions of his career in Washington — budgets, entitlement programs, government reform — have appeared only in code words or generalities.

On Wednesday night, his complicated ideas for overhauling Medicare were summarized with: “A Romney-Ryan administration will protect and strengthen Medicare.”

He has been far more specific about where he comes from. At a rally in his home town on Monday, Ryan recalled his family roots all the way back to Ireland in the 1850s, when “the potatoes stopped growing.”

“Our great-great grandfather, with the shirt on his back, made his way to Boston, worked his way on the railroad to get enough money to buy a farm. And that brought him to the outskirts of Janesville, Wisconsin. And he looked around, and it was summertime, and he said: ‘This looks just like Ireland,’ ” Ryan said. “Then came winter.”

The crowd of fellow Wisconsinites laughed.

In his speeches, Ryan has sought to use his family as evidence that his policies, which he describes only vaguely, spring from good intentions.

At the Villages retirement community in Florida this month, for instance, Ryan brought his mother onstage. With her as a witness, he said his Medicare plan would not affect current seniors but would instead overhaul the program for the next generation.

Within his party’s conservative core, Ryan’s admirers say they don’t mind if he doesn’t get into the details about his budget proposals now. They, of course, already know the details.

“You had me at ‘Hello,’ ” said Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist who is head of Americans for Tax Reform. “If you care about spending and taxes, and someone’s telling you Ryan’s on the ticket, I’m in.”

Ryan’s path in Washington has been marked by his tenacity and his personal connections: He made friends with other lawmakers who sleep in their offices. He led workout sessions at the gym. And he cultivated relationships with conservative thinkers. People who know him aren’t surprised to see him directing a similar kind of appeal to voters nationwide.

“The budget is impressive. But getting [228] votes for the budget is more impressive,” said William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, referring to Ryan’s effort to round up nearly all House Republicans behind his ambitious and controversial plan. “People sort of underestimate Ryan as a politician.”

Now, facing a national audience, Ryan has a far more daunting task ahead of him.

More than three-quarters of Republicans supported his budget plan in the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll. But fewer than four in 10 did so enthusiastically, and about two in 10 opposed it outright. The proposed Medicare changes in the budget are even less popular: More than a third of Republicans are against them.

But by emphasizing his story over his numbers, Ryan has already made some headway. Sue Roberts, 51, an administrative assistant in Worthington, Ohio, is one of those who would be affected by Ryan’s Medicare plan.

Still, she’s seen enough to trust him.

“All I can do is believe him,” Roberts said. “Because he does have a mom.”

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.

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