In the current issue of National Review, we have a piece called “The Would-Have-Been Veep: And should-have-been veep — Paul Ryan.” For those who need the reminding, Ryan is a congressman from Wisconsin, a Republican. He was the GOP vice-presidential nominee in 2012, running with Mitt Romney. In 2011, he became chairman of the House Budget Committee, a position he still has.
I talked with Ryan in his office on Capitol Hill. I thought I would give you an “expansion” of my magazine piece, here in Impromptus. Consider it a bit of a Ryan-palooza.
Initially, Ryan doesn’t want to shake my hand, because he has a cold. But I insist. And then he insists that I Purell myself.
He asks whether it’s okay if he eats his lunch during our talk. He’s on a tight schedule, and has to get to the airport. Sure thing. Ryan is a very fit guy, and he’s having what you might expect him to have: a salad. He does not look like he has too many cheeseburgers and hot-fudge sundaes.
Naturally, I snoop around his office a bit (with permission). He says he has no “grip-and-grin” photos — photos of himself shaking the hands of prominent people. (He himself is a prominent person, of course.) Basically, he has family, and heroes, and “animals I’ve shot.”
Quite near his desk, there is a bust of Churchill. And a portrait of Lincoln. And a photo of Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers.
There is also a knick-knack — I can’t think of another word for it, a little wooden item — that says “PRAY.”
We talk a little football — I’m a Michigander, and therefore a Detroit Lion. He says about our quarterback, Matthew Stafford, “He reminds me of a young Favre — durable.” (Favre was a standout QB for the Packers.) And then we’re off to the races, talking about politics.
I say, “I think I’ve heard the word ‘establishment’ more in the last year than I have in all the preceding years of my life.” Chuckling, Ryan says, “Isn’t that funny?” Many Republicans position themselves as true conservatives fighting the establishment — an establishment that includes Ryan. I ask him, “Are you an establishment politician?” He says, “I’m not even going to touch that one.” He then gives a sample of his conservative bona fides.
In 2008, he says, he put out a budget that everyone tried to talk him out of. It was known as the “roadmap,” and it was widely considered too severe, or too principled. “The political hacks were livid,” he says. The National Republican Congressional Committee told everyone to run away from it. Ryan had only eight co-sponsors.
Then, “we had all those tea-party guys elected in 2010,” and Ryan et al. were able to pass that budget three years in a row. The budget “mainstreamed,” says Ryan. And he was once considered a “pariah,” too right-wing.
He further says that he was “arguably” put on the 2012 Republican ticket to add more conservative weight to it. And now some people group him with the “establishment types.”
What has happened, he says, is that he and his comrades have “moved the center of gravity” of the Republican party. In the early 2000s, “we were a party that lost its moorings on economic and fiscal issues.” The Republicans have now recovered those moorings, says Ryan. “We are much closer to principle. And I think the tea party helped us quite a bit. I think it sort of fast-forwarded the transition that needed to take place,” packing the transition into “a few short years, instead of like a decade.”
The internal Republican fight, he says, is over tactics, nothing else. “No one is disagreeing about principles or even about the policies we want to achieve. It’s just tactics.”
Is the Republican infighting worse than it has ever been? Ryan remembers previous infighting, involving “paleos” and “neocons,” etc. He notes that he came of age in the “Kemp and Bennett” wing of the party. (This refers to Jack Kemp, the Republicans’ vice-presidential nominee in 1996, and Bill Bennett, the great “Reagan Democrat,” who became a great Reagan Republican.) The Kempites used to fight with the Dole-ites. (Of course, Kemp and Bob Dole united on the ticket in ’96.) But the infighting of yore was not as bad as now, says Ryan. The reason?
“I think technology is different. The way information is transmitted is so much different now. The way money and fundraising occurs is different now.” So, “everything is more accelerated and amplified.”
But Republicans should “take a deep breath and put it all in perspective.” Infighting can be “dangerous” because “we don’t have time to have a civil war. We could lose this country if we don’t win in 2014 and 2016. Obama has done a lot to advance liberal progressivism and put it on a trajectory that could be irreversible if they get another term or two in the White House.”
Ryan says that Republicans are going to have to unify, and that there is time to do so. “But the thing is, we’ve got to win a majority of Americans. We’ve got to win elections. We can’t have an Electoral College strategy with a margin of error of one state. You know what I mean?” (Yes.) “We’ve got to focus more on winning converts than on purging and burning heretics.”
There is no need to dilute principle, says Ryan. The need is to get better at “conveying our principles to people not well acquainted with them, and showing how we apply those principles, to all. That’s what we want to spend our time working on instead of focusing on our backyard” (or gazing at the conservative navel).
“What our base should do,” says Ryan, “is hold us accountable for being true to principle.” And “what we owe our base is a clear vision of what we’re shooting for, so that they know we’re not [in Washington] to be tax collectors for the welfare state. We have to be clear about our aims and how we intend to get there, so that we’re given the tactical flexibility we need to make the prudential judgments, day by day, step by step, incrementally. That’s the secret to it, and that’s the challenge.”
By the way, that phrase “tax collectors for the welfare state” is a nod to what we were talking about earlier: Dole-ites and Kempites. “Tax collectors for the welfare state” was a gibe of Kemp’s, directed at Dole and his camp.
There are people who say there’s no real difference between the two major parties. The Republicans and the Democrats are Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the “Republicrats.” I think the parties are more like night and day.
Ryan says that, in a way, “you can thank Obama for that.” He then speaks of progressivism. “I’m from Wisconsin, and we’re pretty familiar with that. We have Bob La Follette as one of our two representatives in Statuary Hall.” Each state gets two statues, as you probably know. Robert “Fightin’ Bob” La Follette was a Wisconsin congressman, senator, and governor, and a champion of progressivism in America.
Ryan continues, “You grow up in Wisconsin, you know what progressivism is. And that’s pretty much why I’m a conservative. I grew up learning about all this progressivism stuff, and I thought it was ridiculous. I thought it made no sense. Then I read the Austrians [the classical-liberal economists of the Austrian school] and Burke and the Founders and all that stuff, and said, ‘That sounds right to me. That makes sense.’”
In any case, “I think Obama sees himself as having more than just a paragraph in history. I think he sees himself as writing the final chapter of the progressive experiment.” The good news, says Ryan, is that Obama and the Democrats have to sell their progressivism “misleadingly,” “indirectly.” They cloak their intentions and program in the rhetoric of the Declaration, the Constitution, and American traditions. They can’t be candid — because the people wouldn’t buy what they were selling.
“And now,” says Ryan, “we see what big government in practice looks like.” During the 2012 campaign, he and Romney had to run against the idea of Obamacare — a fundamental change that was looming. Obama and the Democrats had cleverly delayed implementation of their law until after the election. But “now we see the results,” says Ryan. “Now we see, ‘Oh, I can’t keep my doctor? Oh, my plan is going to cost a lot more?’ The rubber has hit the road, and the country is learning a painful lesson.”
Reinforcing this point, Ryan says, “The challenge we always had before as conservatives was, we would talk about these things [e.g., the effect of Obamacare], but only the people on the front lines of experiencing regulations, like business owners, really knew what we were talking about. Now people see the effect on themselves, and they have a better practical understanding of the lessons we have been trying to convey and teach for a long time.”
But don’t get smug or complacent, Ryan warns Republicans. “It’s not enough to say, ‘I told you so. See, it didn’t work!’ We’ve got to be an alternative party. We’ve got to express our principles and solutions to people who have never heard them before. We have to broaden our appeal. That’s why I do all this stuff in the inner cities,” talking about poverty, upward mobility, and the like. “I think we’re in a better position now than ever before given the specifics and the implementation of liberal progressivism.”
And “I think the president is kind of intellectually exhausted, and the Left is intellectually exhausted. They’re talking about income inequality because they can’t talk about growth. I feel we have an opportunity.”
Is that enough for one day, ladies and gentlemen? I’ll be back with Paul Ryan tomorrow. We’ll talk about running with Romney, debating Joe Biden, and more.