Ryan in the Arena, Part I


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.”