At 9 on Wednesday morning, Ryan comes bounding into his office like a Labrador. He’s wearing his ever-present iPod earbuds, which never leave his head during the five minutes he’s here. A warning to reporters: If Ryan doesn’t know you well, don’t ask what he’s listening to – he’ll tell you with a straight face, John Tesh.
Highly disciplined, Ryan was up at the crack of dawn performing a grueling fitness routine that requires 200 push-ups. Then, he joined a congressional Bible study group that meets on Wednesday mornings.
At 9:30, Ryan is off to a Fiscal Commission working group that is addressing discretionary spending. He has volunteered to serve on President Obama’s newly formed commission to manage government spending and debt, and today is the first meeting.
Back in the Ryan office, his staff fields phone calls and attends to constituents who visit unexpectedly. Tom and Janice of New Berlin drop in, and ask to see “the next president.” Since Ryan is still at his meeting, they are given tickets to a Capitol tour and merrily go on their way.
Earlier in the day, I had showed Ryan’s staff a copy of their boss’ birth announcement that I had found in the Janesville Gazette. They tell me that they gave Ryan a copy, and that he was impressed. “And that was before he even had a press secretary,” one of his staffers cracked.
Ryan returns at 11:30 and heads into his office to make phone calls before his Ways and Means Committee meeting at noon. At 11:36, he bolts from his office and hands me a sheet of paper. It’s a breaking-news report from Politico.com that liberal Wisconsin Congressman David Obey has decided to retire.
Obey was first elected to Congress in April 1969 – nine months before Paul Ryan was born. But facing an energetic campaign from Ashland County district attorney and former “Real World” star Sean Duffy, the irascible Obey has decided to call it quits. Later, Ryan would tell me that he heard a rumor two weeks earlier about Obey retiring, but dismissed it as nonsense.
Ryan’s press team huddled briefly to discuss what their boss should say regarding Obey’s retirement. Regardless of political party affiliation, Wisconsin’s congressional delegation is duty-bound to say something about Obey’s interminable tenure in the House. I suggest they issue a simple one-line statement: “Dave Obey has a beard.” I am ignored.
I duck into the Obey press conference to hear him declare that his district ready for a new representative “who won’t use an actor’s ability to hide the fact that he is willing to gut and privatize Social Security and Medicare and abandon working people to the arbitrary power of America’s corporate and economic elite.”
Clearly, an unsubtle shot at both Sean Duffy and Paul Ryan.
Eleven days after his 28th birthday, Paul Ryan announced he was running for Congress in Wisconsin’s 1st District. He began as a heavy underdog to Democrat Lydia Spottswood, who had narrowly lost to Neumann two years before. But Ryan cruised to victory, winning 57.2% of the vote. It would be the last time anyone got that close to Ryan--he won his next five elections averaging almost two-thirds of the vote.
Thinking back on his first election, Ryan believes Wisconsin voters prefer young politicians. “You just can’t come across as an arrogant young know-it-all,” he says. He tells me that back in those days he made a conscious effort to be overly lugubrious during speeches and debates, to counteract his youthful looks.
Ryan can turn on the humor behind the scenes. An ex-staffer told me of a gift exchange Ryan conducts with cantankerous Wisconsin Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, who is considered only humorous when compared to an amputation. One year, Sensenbrenner bought Ryan a reindeer that defecated candy – Ryan returned the favor with a pair of nose hair trimmers packed in a Tiffany’s box. Sensenbrenner then purchased Ryan some men’s hair coloring gel. And on and on it went.
In early 2000, Ryan announced he was engaged to Washington attorney Janna Little, whom he had been dating for a little more than a year. The engagement notice in the local newspaper identified Ryan as a Congressman, but also pointed out that he was “an avid hunter and fisherman who does his own skinning and butchering and makes his own Polish sausage and bratwurst.”
Ryan began to garner national attention in 2003, during the debate over President Bush’s proposal to expand prescription drug benefits to seniors through Medicare. Ryan is proud of the free market programs he inserted into the final bill (Medicare Advantage, Health Saving Accounts), and believes those are the “seeds” to a future overhaul of federal entitlement programs.
When Ryan gave a well-received speech to the 2004 Republican Convention in New York, the “P” word began popping up. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Katherine Skiba compared Ryan, then 34, favorably to John F. Kennedy. When asked about Ryan in 2004, Bill Bennett, said, "I keep telling him, 'Run for president, run for Senate. Start the plan.’” (Ryan maintains Bennett was joking.)
In 2006, Ryan got another boost when Republicans were hammered at the polls, losing both the U.S. Senate and House. A testy Ryan believed the Republican brand was damaged because of the “bad apples” in his party. “We don’t need a feather duster; we need a fire hose,” he said about purging the party of those unwilling to advance the Republican Party’s core ideals.
Arguing for change, Ryan campaigned among his fellow Republicans to be named the ranking member of the House Budget Committee. He won, beating out a dozen members with more seniority. “If we were going to just keep promoting the next person in line, then what’s the point?” he said.
After his promotion, he began codifying his thinking in a policy manifesto called the Roadmap for America’s Future, saying it took nearly a year and a half to get all the numbers right. His plan boldly calls for reforming the income tax code and would reconfigure two of the sacrosanct programs in American politics--Social Security and Medicare.
It was this plan that President Obama waved over his head on Ryan’s 40th birthday, at a House Republican Conference retreat in January. Obama said that he had read Ryan’s plan and called it “a serious proposal.”
However, Ryan is certain Obama shone the spotlight on his plan only as “a straw man that he could then knock down.” He said he fully expects Democrats to use the Roadmap as a “demagogic weapon” during the 2010 campaign season.
Ryan’s most dramatic tête-à-tête with Obama came at the famous “Blair House” health care summit, where both Republican and Democratic members of Congress convened around a table before a national television audience to debate Obama’s proposed health plan. With Obama presiding, Democrats attempted to minimize the differences between the two parties, trying to leave the impression that agreement was close.
By the time Ryan was scheduled to speak, he remembers he had gotten very upset with the Democrats’ attempts to portray the two sides as nearly identical. “They kept rattling off all these incorrect numbers and bogus stuff,” Ryan says. “I think we knew the bill a lot better than they did themselves.”
So when cameras turned to Ryan, he began systematically dismantling the Democrats’ rosy cost estimates. He pointed out that much of the cost was hidden, as it raised taxes for ten years to pay for six years’ worth of spending. He exposed the fact that the $371 billion “doc fix” (a plan to reimburse doctors more through Medicare) had been separated from the bill and considered as standalone legislation to keep the price tag down. “Hiding spending does not reduce spending,” he said.
As Ryan spoke, the cameras would occasionally make their way back to President Obama, who was glaring icily at Ryan.
“I wanted to throw a match on this thing,” Ryan remembers thinking.
There are plenty of reasons to suspect that Ryan’s future may not be as bright as his boosters think. For one, Ryan is essentially Patient Zero when it comes to entitlement reform. No one really knows how a national audience would treat his bold proposals.
Ryan’s critics have been hammering at a provision of his Roadmap that would fundamentally alter Medicare by injecting market forces into the program. Ryan would provide individuals under the age of 55 with a voucher worth $11,000 per year when fully phased in. The voucher would then be indexed to inflation and be increased for those with lower incomes.
White House budget director Peter Orszag, while acknowledging Ryan’s plan would address the nation’s long-term fiscal problem, argues that health care costs will rise faster than the value of the voucher. Saying Ryan’s plan only saves money by “shifting a lot of the risk and expected cost onto individuals and their families,” Orszag believes too many policymakers—Republicans as well as Democrats--will find that solution objectionable.
Ryan calls this the most “fair and accurate” criticism of his plan, but says that it’s impossible to keep funding health care expenditures at the current rate of increase. He says the Obama plan deals with the problem by rationing care. “My plan gives individuals control to put market pressure on providers to compete,” he says.
Unrestrained health care spending, he warns, will “kill our economy – it crashes the system.” So the choice, he says, is either “the Obama method of rationing care down, or doing a...consumer-directed system.”
Given how suspicious seniors are to any changes in Medicare and Social Security, this is a politically risky idea for Ryan to advance. We already know how rank-and-file Republicans react to Ryan’s plan – and it’s not entirely positive.
When President Obama made an issue of the Roadmap, Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner emerged from his tanning bed long enough to deny he had ever heard of this “Paul Ryan” fellow.
Furthermore, so far the Roadmap only has 12 House co-sponsors – all from below the Mason-Dixon line, save for Rep. Cynthia Lummis from Wyoming. No Senate companion bill has been offered. It is clear that most Republicans believe that to explain Paul Ryan’s plan, you actually have to be Paul Ryan.
Ryan has also caught flak from the right on some high-profile votes. Ryan voted “yes” on such toxic bills as the bank and auto bailouts. He defends these votes by saying they prevented an economic collapse, which in turn would have prompted even more heavy-handed government regulation.
Whatever Ryan’s problems are with Republicans, he more than makes up for in crossover appeal with Democrats. In many ways, Ryan’s tenure in the House has mirrored that of his mentor, Jack Kemp.
Kemp represented the blue-collar southtown area near Buffalo; Ryan’s district includes heavily unionized Janesville, Racine and Kenosha. In 2008, while Obama was pulling 66% of the vote in Kenosha, 67% in Janesville, and 70% in Racine, Ryan received a solid 52%, 59%, and 45%, respectively, in those same cities.
The conventional wisdom holds that a member of the House doesn’t have enough stature to make a serious run at the presidency. But the conventional wisdom also held that voters would never elect an African-American president. Now it seems anything is possible.
How can you rule out a well-liked 42-year old candidate from the House? Can anyone say with certainty that the next president isn’t currently a member of the Black Eyed Peas? I can’t. I won’t.