Ryan in the Arena, Part III


Editor’s Note: This week, we have been running a series on Paul Ryan. He is the Republican congressman from Wisconsin who chairs the Budget Committee and ran on his party’s 2012 ticket with Mitt Romney. The series is an expansion of a piece in the current National Review by Jay Nordlinger. The piece is called “The Would-Have-Been Veep.” For the first two installments of the series, go here and here. It concludes today.

I bring up some issues with Ryan, including defense. Some of us worry that the Republican party is going wobbly on the issue. Republicans seem happy, or at least willing, to see the defense budget shrink perilously. True? Not true, says Ryan — though the worry is not entirely unfounded.

“I’m a hawk,” he says. And the problem of defense and the GOP is “not to be ignored.” He says, matter-of-factly, “We’re not all hawks anymore.” When he first came to Congress, in 1999, “we were all hawks. Everybody was a hawk. And that caucus has shrunk a bit, because we have a libertarian stream.” But “I’m not too stressed,” because the Republican leadership is foursquare on defense.

The big problem, he says, is that “the president really determines how this stuff goes.” And “we, in this moment, have to do what we can to prevent him from hollowing out our force.” In the defense field, he says, the decisions you make now have ripple effects for years and years. If you hollow out — if you drastically cut — you can’t build back up overnight. It takes long and painful steps.

What he and other Republicans are trying to do now, he says, is “buy time,” or “fight a rearguard action.” They are trying to keep defense afloat while awaiting Republican electoral victories in the near future. In the meantime, “we have this miserable foreign policy,” meaning Obama’s.

Ryan says, “The greatest lasting damage of this presidency could very well be in the defense and foreign-policy area. Because I look at the domestic stuff — which is what I’m known for and spend a lot of time on — as fixable. All we have to do is win elections. That’s within our control as a country. We’ve got to keep the House, get the Senate, and get the White House. We know how to make Social Security work, we know how to fix Medicare, we know how to replace Obamacare, we know how to rewrite the tax code, we know how to get the Federal Reserve back in line and on a sound-money basis . . . We need to win an election where we say this and get the mandate to do it.”

There is an important “but” coming: “But we don’t control the mullahs, we don’t control Putin, we don’t control the arms race in the Middle East that’s about to get sparked, we don’t control the appetite we’re whetting with the Chinese by shrinking our force and giving them an incentive to catch up . . . So that’s the stuff that could be lasting damage.”

Ryan emphasizes that he is more worried about problems related to foreign policy than he is about our domestic problems. The foreign-policy problems will be the “deeper hole” to climb out of.

I tell him, “It seems to me that the American people are impossible to arouse on the subject of the debt” — our $17.5 trillion federal debt. “You just can’t get them excited about it.” Ryan laughs, saying, “The pollsters all say that. I don’t care, I still talk about it. They do tell you that, though. It’s funny.”

I ask, “Is media bias still a factor?” We on the right used to make such a big deal out of it. (Some of us continue to make at least a minor deal out of it.) Ryan says, “It’s less of a factor. And if we get our technological act together, we’ll just go around the media. But we have to get that fixed.” By “we,” Ryan means the Republican party.