Understanding Ryan: How I Came to Know the Congressman I Now Call Paul

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A few days before Mitt Romney called to ask Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan to serve as his running mate, Ryan took a call from me to talk about one of his biggest rivals for the job: Ohio Senator Rob Portman. The two are old friends—Ryan nicknamed Portman “Roberto”, and Portman calls Ryan “Pablo.” And while Ryan refused to talk about his own chances for the VP slot, it was clear he had been thinking about the job in his characteristically systematic way.

As a first principle, Ryan said, he believed a Vice President should be a statesman. Portman, he said, had those skills.

“I define statesman with four principles, four criteria. No. 1, does he have a bedrock of principles? Absolutely. No. 2, does he have a moral compass? Of course. Three, does he have a vision for the country? Yes. Four, does he possess the skills, the aptitude, the leadership to build a consensus to implement and execute that vision?”

For those of us who have covered Ryan over the years on Capitol Hill, such standards-based, logical talk has become the Congressman’s hallmark. The attributes by which he measured Portman’s preparation for the job now may be the ones by which he is judged.

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The first time a colleague flagged Ryan to me was in 2005. Ryan was just starting his fourth term and had made a name for himself as a smart legislator on the Ways & Means Committee, the top tax-writing panel in the House. The media would stake out the Ways & Means weekly lunches in H-137 on the first floor of the Capitol building and the members would chat with us on their way in and out. I quickly learned Ryan was the go-to person for a fiscal conservative quote – a Republican disgusted with his own party’s profligate spending who not only lambasted the President but also voted against every omnibus appropriations bill.

Over the next few years, it became clear Ryan was more than a Club for Growth, anti-tax conservative. He was an ideologue and proud of it. During a 2005 mark-up of legislation overhauling the nation’s defined benefit pensions, which the government insures, Ryan urged his GOP colleagues to do better to protect American taxpayers. He was the only Republican on the committee to vote against the bill. Ryan was about seven years ahead of the Tea Party in that regard. It was the dire situation with defined benefit pensions – potentially putting the government on the hook for trillions in debt despite the overhaul Republicans had passed just two years prior – that Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson used to ultimately convince Congress to pass the bank bailout in the fall of 2008.

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Some of the media’s generally positive reaction to his selection as Romney’s running mate can be explained by how Ryan carried himself on the Hill. While Ryan was always quick with a quote, he didn’t aggressively promote himself in the press like some of his colleagues did. He was low key and incredibly wonky – even in comparison to the staffers who actually make things run on Capitol Hill. Ryan once told me he liked to talk to no one so much as actuaries. Much of his spare time was spent huddling with economists and think tank budget geeks. And he was non-discriminatory in his intellectualism, as prone to inviting a Democratic fiscal expert over for a diet Coke as he would one from the libertarian Cato Institute.

A former staffer himself, Ryan also insisted that everyone – press included – call him Paul. I resisted this until I spent a day following him around the Racine County fair in his district. At the end of the day there was a goat-milking contest in which Ryan traditionally participated—and lost. “The beauty queens – all former milk maids – always win,” Ryan lamented. Ever the perfectionist, Ryan had been honing his goat milking skills over the years and he drafted his udder strategy for me on a napkin over a corn dog lunch. He came in fourth that year, but Ryan gamely took photos with the beauty queens and vowed revenge next year. It’s hard not to call a man you’ve debated goat udders with by his first name.

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Ryan came into his own on Capitol Hill around the time conservative South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint sparked the first big spending backlash of recent years by attacking the Bridge to Nowhere in 2005: it is as a deficit hawk that Ryan would truly make his name three years later. He told me that he’d been mulling the 2008 plan that would eventually become his “Road Map for America’s Future” for years. But it wasn’t until he became the top Republican on the House Budget Committee after the 2006 election that he had the power to get the Congressional Budget Office to crunch his numbers.

He spent much of 2007 exchanging drafts with the CBO before he rolled out his plan in 2008. Republican leaders took to the plan the way a frail invalid might ride a rollercoaster: thrilled, but also terrified the ride might kill them. Despite taking on every sacred cow in the pasture, Ryan’s Road Map became a signature issue for Tea Party candidates in 2010.

Ryan admits his view of the world has been myopic at times, usually bent through a budget lens. He’s not likely to win over the national security hawks or social conservatives. But in a Tea Party era, Ryan inspires enthusiasm and all but dares Democrats to take the low road. As Ryan told me in 2010 about his Road Map:  “I really sincerely hoped that a few other people from Congress from both parties would start throwing their plans out there and then we’d get into the business of debating these things. But, unfortunately, we’re going to have to go through another round of turning these things into third rails and political weapons. What I’m trying to do is change the nature of the third rail from, ‘Touch this program and you die,’ to, ‘Fail to fix the problem and you die politically.’” Romney is about to put this theory to the test.

Ryan always swore he had his eyes on one goal: chairmanship of the tax-writing Ways & Means Committee. It’s why he turned down becoming Bush’s budget director in 2005 and why he’s resisted calls to run for Senate or for House leadership. He always talked about how his father, grandfather and great-grandfather had all died young, of heart disease and how he felt he had precious little time with his own children. He didn’t want to squander it with “delusions of grandeur” or other “distractions.” He said he had a mission to balance the budget, and that was a noble enough goal. Now he’s betting his place on the GOP ticket will get him there faster.

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