Across town, the wonks are waiting.
So are Conor Sweeney, Rep. Paul Ryan’s communications director, and Austin Smythe, the staff director at the House Budget Committee. Smythe, his arms piled with papers, lingers beside Ryan’s sport-utility vehicle, which is parked near the Capitol steps. Sweeney, an easygoing twentysomething, sits in the driver’s seat.
Where is Ryan? The Budget Committee chairman, a youthful 41-year-old Republican, is nowhere to be found. Various backbenchers and aides hustle past. Sweeney checks his watch. Ryan is due to speak at the Hyatt Regency, over on New Jersey Avenue, within minutes. But House votes, as they tend to, have gone long.
“Paul! Paul!” hollers Sweeney as Ryan bounds out of the Capitol, his iPod in hand. Ryan swivels and approaches. He jumps into the backseat, which is cluttered with toys, empty juice boxes, and papers. “My wife and kids are in town,” he explains. “We went to Mount Vernon. They loved it.”
Indeed, the car’s interior, scuffed and stained, is a toddler’s paradise. Ryan picks up a plastic box of chocolate, which has melted under the summer sun, and in jest offers me a dripping, smeared piece. He chuckles as Sweeney hits the gas. Zooming past the Senate, he does not turn his head. Ryan recently turned down the chance to run for Wisconsin’s open Senate seat next year. His gaze, in most respects, remains fixed on the lower chamber.
Ka-thunk. As the wheels bounce out of the Capitol complex, Smythe hands Ryan a manila folder, which he thumbs as we make our way toward the hotel. In a few minutes, the congressman will address the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget’s annual conference. Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, big-name investors, and various academics will be there.
Once we arrive, Ryan does not break a sweat as he rushes down the escalator and into the camera-swarmed ballroom. He takes a seat near David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, down the row from former senator Alan Simpson, his sparring partner on the president’s debt-reduction commission. He is on time, but barely.
The moderator quickly asks Ryan to weigh in. He nods at the familiar faces. “We took over the majority on the cusp of a debt crisis,” he begins. “We all know around here the size of the problem, the scope of the problem. To govern is to actually put an idea on the table. That’s what we did.”
Ryan often speaks at these types of events, sometimes two or three such summits in one day. Jugs of ice water, white-linen tablecloth, fruit trays, cerebral discussion of political challenges — these are the props to Ryan’s traveling, truth-telling show. As the GOP’s charismatic budget expert, he is in high demand.
But it is not just the Wall Street crowd that appreciates the Wisconsin Republican. Many leading conservatives wish that he would speak to crowds outside the Beltway, especially in Iowa and New Hampshire, as a presidential candidate.
For months, Ryan has rebuffed the begging cries. His kids are too small, he says, and he enjoys being an influential committee chairman. Yet his reluctance to enter the race has not dimmed his rising star; if anything, it has made him more powerful. As White House hopefuls hit the trail, they look to Ryan, more than anyone, as the pacesetter on fiscal policy.
As we chat in the backseat, returning to the Capitol, Ryan acknowledges that he has a role to play in 2012 — that he cannot sit on the sidelines as the presidential primary heats up. He is eager to join the debate. At this early stage, however, he is careful to not wade in too far, lest someone thinks he is considering a late entry into the field.
“As far as I am concerned, my answer has not changed,” he says. “I feel like I am in a good place where I am right now. I have a young family, and I can balance that and the cause, and make a big difference where I am. If I left to run a campaign, I would risk politicizing my aspect of the cause, and I would not see my family for 18 months.
“Now, I know that 18 months in a person’s lifetime is short, and that’s what everybody keeps telling me,” he says. “But I still go back to the fact that where I am right now, I am uniquely positioned to make a real difference.”