MONROE, Wis. — Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) sat in the front booth of Baumgartner’s Cheese Store and Tavern on a recent weekday, his wiry frame hunched over a plate filled with slices of smoked Gouda. He waved me over to take a seat. When the waitress stopped by, he told her, earnest as ever, that I would like a Limburger sandwich. He chuckled. “You know, that’s the worst smelling cheese they’ve got,” he said.
That about sums up how Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, feels about the media these days. Two years after his unsuccessful vice presidential run, the 44-year-old Republican has been typecast as a wonky House insider who is unlikely, if not unwilling, to run for president. Ryan’s lack of early maneuvering has helped feed the impression.
But over the course of an hour-long lunch and several refills of unsweetened tea, Ryan made clear that he is irritated by the conventional wisdom. He’s not a House “lifer,” he said. A presidential campaign remains a distinct possibility. And he brushed aside the head start by his potential rivals as unseemly positioning ahead of a midterm election. “I don’t see the point in it,” Ryan said. “It’s not fun.”
What do you make of the Paul Ryan guessing game? It has become a pastime on Capitol Hill.
Everybody tries to either tell me what to do with my life or they know what I’m going to do with my life. It’s just, good Lord.
When will you make your 2016 decision?
I’m not in a rush. My way is to do the job at hand, do it well, and not worry about strategizing how I can do better than this guy or that guy in New Hampshire. I’m not in a place where I have to scratch and claw to get my name out there. Why do I need to blow money on that? I’ll line it all up next year and do my long list of pros and cons, this and that.
By pushing off your decision until next year, you’d probably be one of the later entries if you got in.
I’ve got all the time in the world. I don’t have some calendar with a red circle. I don’t feel the pressure to do it any other way. I have my own timeline, and I don’t let stuff that’s happening around me get to my head. That’s dangerous.
How have people misread you?
I’m not a be-er — I’m a doer. I’m not dying to be this or that. I’m more of a cause guy. So I come at this thing from that perspective. I don’t have this insatiable political ambition. But I know how to flip the switch. If you flip the switch, you flip the switch. I know how to do it and what I need to do if I choose to flip it. Right now, the switch has tape over it until 2015.
Is your family supportive?
My kids loved it when I was with Mitt. They enjoyed it and thought it was great. My family, of all families, understands what it takes and has a good sense of what it’s like. There isn’t a lot of gray area. It’s really about the typical questions that arise.
You’ve only occasionally traveled to the early presidential primary states. If you are seriously considering a presidential bid, why take such a hands-off approach?
I don’t feel the need to be out there, putting my toe in the water. I don’t see the point in it. It’s not fun, and I don’t think I need to. I already know a lot of people in these key states well. They call me up, so I don’t feel the need to have to chum.
A year after the federal government shutdown, have conservatives learned any lessons?
We have to remember that we have to go out and attract people and that the Electoral College is what it is. Those tactics [during the shutdown] didn’t work. If we’re going to win, it’s going to be because of ideas. We’ve got to build that movement and have a governing temperament.
Some of your friends believe a lengthy stay in the House is more to your liking.
I don’t see myself as a lifer. I know it’s weird for a guy who’s been in Congress since he was 28 years old to say that, but I really don’t.
Has Romney encouraged you to seek the presidency?
Yes. And I take him at his word that he thinks it is somebody else’s turn and he’s not planning on running at all. I think you’ll have a pretty full field, so I don’t think anything is going to change on that front.
What about former Florida governor Jeb Bush or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie? They are two Republicans who are seen as your possible competition. Have they reached out to you?
No. I know them both relatively well, but I wouldn’t say I know them really well. I haven’t talked to either of them in a long time. The last time I saw Jeb was at the Manhattan Institute dinner in May and we shot the bull. We didn’t talk about this stuff. The last time I saw Christie was in June at Romney’s retreat in Utah.
You are an ally of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). Will he win another term as speaker?
Yes. John takes a lot of slings and arrows. He takes a ton of heat for not being what some people want him to be. Yet at the end of the day, he keeps moving ahead and delivering. John has a knack for making the House work, and it’s a harder job than most people realize. I wish they’d give him more credit.
Do you have the votes to win the Ways and Means gavel? Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.) has said he will challenge you for the position.
Dave Camp [R-Mich.] is the current chairman, and he’s got work to do. I don’t want to be disrespectful and get ahead of him. It’s a decorum thing. Think about it, as if you were Dave. That’s the way I look at it. But I feel good about where I am, and we’ll leave it at that.
If you do win that post, what are your expectations in terms of passing bipartisan tax reform legislation?
We’ll have to see who’s running what and what the president’s attitude is. It’d be nice to deal with [Sen.] Orrin Hatch [R-Utah] on the issue over at the Senate Finance Committee. It’s not that I don’t like [Sen.] Ron Wyden [D-Ore.], I actually like Ron quite a bit, but Ron doesn’t run his party.
If we get the Senate, it would make things easier, but we still have the president there. We’ll have to see if he’s willing to lower rates on individuals as well. That’s a big part of it because you can’t leave the individual business hanging. So I don’t know if we’ll be able to get there with this president. I tell people that we’re anywhere from one to three years away from getting tax reform.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.