Romney’s VP pick Paul Ryan signals new direction
MILWAUKEE — Paul Ryan has spent the past three years urging Republicans to be bold, to pursue a politically risky overhaul of the nation’s health-care entitlements, and to turn the 2012 election into a stark and defining contest of opposing world views.
Mitt Romney appeared to embrace that strategy Saturday by picking Ryan as his running mate.
The decision to tap the 42-year-old House budget chair from Janesville, Wis., for the GOP ticket signaled a new direction for a Romney campaign seen as struggling this summer and sometimes criticized for an excess of caution.
In Ryan, Romney is getting his party’s most influential politician on the budget and economy, a huge favorite of pro-business and free-market conservatives, a skilled politician and self-styled “policy wonk,” a prolific fundraiser and ubiquitous cable news presence, and the architect of two deeply controversial federal budget plans that sharply scale back social spending and health care entitlements.
Ryan’s selection punctuates a remarkable rise to influence on the part of the seven-term congressman from southern Wisconsin, who has methodically seized control of his party’s economic agenda, first in Congress, and now in a presidential election.
In recent days, influential conservatives had mounted a lobbying campaign on Ryan’s behalf, arguing that Romney needs to sharpen the ideological contrast between himself and President Barack Obama, offer a clearer policy agenda, and turn the race into a battle of values and ideas, not just a referendum on the Obama economy.
Notably, these are the exact arguments Ryan himself has been making for the past several years about the 2012 election.
In a long interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last year, Ryan said that he crafted his controversial budgets with the idea in mind of prodding his own party’s nominee to take sharp stands and thereby force a more defining election in 2012, one that he hoped would produce a governing mandate for Republicans to roll back government spending and change health care entitlements.
“Part of my thinking in doing the budget and doing what we’re doing in 2011 is to raise the bar and standards (so) whoever is the nominee is going to have to be someone that meets those standards, so we don’t just give it to the next guy in line so that 2012 is a very clear election,” said Ryan. “All these past elections have been muddled elections, sort of muddled personality contests, different shades of the same color. We need a clear referendum election, so that when we win, which is obviously our scenario, we have the moral obligation and the moral authority to fix this problem the way we proposed to do it.”
Ryan’s view of the 2012 election, expressed in interviews and speeches, rests on a few basic articles of faith.
One is that the United States is approaching a debt crisis and point of no return in which the arc of government spending transforms the nation into a “European-style” social welfare state.
“This is a Churchill moment. We see the storm on the horizon. We know it’s coming,” Ryan said in the same 2011 interview.
Another is that Republicans should run on an explicit agenda of cutting government, cutting taxes and scaling back the big health entitlements —Medicare and Medicaid — so that an election victory would deliver not just power but a clear mandate.
And a third is that in such an election the American people would be fundamentally choosing, possibly in some lasting way, between the competing world views of the left and right.
“Everybody knows this is politically risky territory. Republicans have their battle scars on entitlement reform,” Ryan said in a speech earlier this year at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “That’s why some argue that we should downplay bold agendas and simply wage a campaign focused solely on the President and his party. I firmly disagree. Boldness and clarity offer the greatest opportunity to create a winning coalition. We will not only win the next election. We have a unique opportunity to sweep and remake the political landscape. “
Earlier this year, speaking to reporters at a breakfast organized by the Christian Science Monitor, Ryan said Republicans “can’t just run against the bad news.”
“There is always the temptation, it’s usually from the political consultant types, don’t take risks, don’t be bold, because they can use it against you, I think people are sick of that. It’s cynical but more importantly you win the wrong kind of victory,” said Ryan, in language that anticipated some of the debate over his own selection as running mate.
While the idea of Ryan on the ticket excites many on the right, it also unnerves some party strategists, worried that Republican election prospects would become hostage to the controversy over Ryan’s Medicare proposals.
Ryan is an unconventional choice in many ways. He would be the third youngest running mate since World War II. He would be only the third sitting U.S. House member to be chosen for vice president since 1948.
But Ryan joked four years ago, when his name surfaced as a possible running mate for John McCain, that, “I check a series of boxes” for vice president.
“Young guy, economics guy, swing state, Catholic,” he said.
Ryan threw his support to Romney at a decisive moment in the 2012 nominating fight, when Romney’s leading challenger, Rick Santorum, was making a desperate last stand in the Wisconsin primary.
Less than a week before the April primary, Ryan endorsed Romney, then spent the remaining days of the primary campaign at Romney’s side on the stump, the two seeming to click. Romney’s victory in Wisconsin effectively sealed his nomination.
But Ryan never displayed much outward sign of coveting a place on the ticket. He had earlier rejected the idea of running for president himself, citing his young children and saying, “My ambitions don’t go there.” He repeatedly has turned down opportunities to run for statewide office in Wisconsin, and frequently downplays his political aspirations.
“I hadn’t planned on becoming a really high-profile, well-known person. It wasn’t really my thinking. You know me, I’m a policy guy,” he said in an interview last year. “Usually it’s people who want to be the political leaders who get a lot of notoriety. In my case it wasn’t something I was shooting for. It’s just something that occurred. I think it occurred because there was such a leadership vacuum, and when somebody fills it, they’re going to get a lot of attention.”
By Wisconsin law, Ryan can remain on the ballot for his House seat while he is on the ballot for vice president, meaning he could in theory retain his House seat even if Republicans lose the presidential contest.
Ryan’s selection would have implications for the electoral map. Wisconsin is a swing state, but it has voted Democratic for president six times in a row, and Obama has consistently led in the polling here.
A Ryan pick would seem to guarantee a major GOP effort in a state where Romney hasn’t been advertising this summer. Flipping Wisconsin from blue to red would be a major boon to Republicans in a close national election.
But Ryan’s ability to change the outcome in his home state is so uncertain (he is well known but has never run for statewide office) that it’s doubtful his Wisconsin roots were primary in Romney’s calculus.
Instead, the choice seems to have more to do with the thematics of the campaign, and perhaps a calculation by the Romney campaign as it labored politically through the summer months that it couldn’t afford to play it safe with its vice presidential choice, that it needed to shake things up and also energize its political base.
Serving in Congress since 1999, Ryan is an ideologically driven Republican whose world view was shaped early on by thinkers, politicians and economists who extolled markets, celebrated the economic empowerment of individuals, feared an overweening state, and advocated a “pro-growth” or “supply side” agenda of lower taxes on business, investment and income.
His intellectual heroes include the economists Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises, and Friedrich Hayek; the writer Ayn Rand, and former New York congressman Jack Kemp, for whom he once worked.
“Jack had a huge influence on me, his brand of inclusive conservatism, his ‘pro-growth’ happy warrior style. That was infectious to me,” Ryan said in a 2009 interview.