Ryan in the Arena, Part III

by Jay Nordlinger

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.

Immigration: “Is it possible to oppose amnesty without coming off as anti-immigration?” “I think I’ve done it,” Ryan says. “I oppose amnesty and I don’t think I look like I’m anti-immigration. So, yeah.”

To me, Ryan looks peppy and purposeful — far from defeated or defeatist. I say, “You haven’t lost your appetite for politics.” He says, “I prefer policy, to be honest with you. I put up with politics as a necessary means to do policy. I’m not a real fan of politics. I like campaigning — that’s fun. With people. I like the grassroots part of it. But politics is necessary to do good policy. I’m a policy guy. I never expected to be an elected official. I set out to do think-tank work.” And elections “just kind of happened.”

After college, Ryan worked as an economist, a congressional staffer, and indeed a think-tanker. People outside of politics have very decided views about politics: how to run, how to win elections. It’s not as easy as they may think. “Get in the arena!” says Ryan (as he has). Then you might not think it’s a snap. He knows a lot more about politics today, he says, than he knew when he was a think-tanker.

You know what Theodore Roosevelt said about the man in the arena:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

On just a personal note — or maybe an institutional note — Ryan says he has been reading National Review since college. A professor suggested NR to him — a professor of macroeconomics. He said, “You’re not going to get this stuff here in our department. You’re going to have to discover it on your own.” Which, obviously, Ryan did, in spades.

We owe a lot to that professor, and to others like him.

Says Ryan, “National Review opened my world up.” (Mine too, incidentally.)

Leaving Ryan’s office, and Capitol Hill, I think of William E. Miller. Does the name ring a bell? He was a New York congressman, and Barry Goldwater’s running mate in 1964. He was on the vice-presidential end of what was immediately known as the “Goldwater debacle.” Barely more than ten years later, he was making a TV commercial for American Express. “Do you know me?” he asked.

Later, he would say he was more famous for that ad than for having been the Republican vice-presidential nominee.

Believe me, anyone who predicts politics should be taken with a grain of salt — bags of salt. But I have a feeling Paul Ryan will be “in the arena,” and prominent in it, for years or decades to come.