For the past several weeks, America was gripped by the question of whether Congress and the president would raise the debt ceiling. That debate has made even clearer the importance of, and the answer to, another question: Who should challenge Barack Obama in 2012?
The debate has highlighted how little the expected Republican presidential field has to offer in the important battles taking place in Washington. The GOP frontrunners didn’t provide any real leadership or even cogent advice from afar. They appeared at best uninvolved and at worst unserious.
Quite the opposite can be said of House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan. He has now shown himself to be the most persuasive and reliable Republican leader on Obamacare, the budget, and the debt ceiling alike. Moreover, Ryan is the only Republican who has (repeatedly) challenged Obama and come out on top.
This is not to disparage the current frontrunners’ chances of beating Obama — whose approval ratings now barely top 40 percent — or to deny their merits. Michele Bachmann’s unflinching support for repealing Obamacare is truly praiseworthy. Mitt Romney has a record of success with the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City and in private business. But these are not the people Obama fears.
That distinction belongs to Ryan. At last year’s GOP House Issues Conference, Ryan burst onto the national stage by challenging Obama’s facts on deficit spending, leaving the president stammering and quite eager to move on to another questioner. At the “health summit,” Ryan stole the show with a blistering critique of Obamacare, to which Obama offered no coherent response. Two months ago, Ryan pointedly told Obama, “Mr. President, the demagoguery only stops if the leaders stop it,” adding, “Leadership should come from the top.” His fellow Republicans gave him a standing ovation — and this was inside the White House.
Ryan can unite the GOP’s tea-party and establishment wings. Despite her merits, Bachmann represents a fringe subset of the Tea Party as one of only nine House Republicans who opposed raising the debt ceiling even in connection with “Cut, Cap, and Balance.” Conversely, Romney represents the complacent part of the establishment that doesn’t give the impression that the repeal of Obamacare is really all that important. Meanwhile, Ryan represents the majority of Republicans — whether tea-party sympathizers or not — who sensibly reject both of these poles.
Furthermore, Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin sits in a key region and is one of the three or four best states for a Republican candidate in 2012 to be from: It’s relatively large, it will be hard-fought, and it leans slightly Democratic — meaning Obama is counting on it.
True, Ryan is young (he’ll be 42 by Election Day, as was Kennedy in 1960), but that’s an asset — and he has certainly been in Congress long enough to have proven himself. In fact, renowned Hillsdale history professor Paul Rahe writes that Ryan “has attained a stature that no Congressman in my lifetime has achieved,” adding, “When I cast my mind back in the past in search of comparable figures, I can come up with only two — James Madison in the First Federal Congress, and Henry Clay, when he was Speaker of the House.” That’s not only extraordinary company; it’s an indication that Ryan has outgrown his office. Subsequent years in Congress would yield only mounting frustration.
Yet conservatives’ genuine reverence for the Constitution often seems to be puzzlingly paired with a blindness to that document’s actual allocation of powers. Witness the Republican talent that — so far, anyway — is sitting this race out, ostensibly to focus on service in other, comparatively trivial, capacities. Here’s the truth: If Ryan wants to change America, he needs to change jobs.
This time around, as we approach what’s likely to be the most important presidential election at least since 1864, Republicans cannot afford to nominate anyone other than their best and brightest — and the best and brightest can’t afford to sit it out. The fate of Obamacare, and more broadly of limited government and liberty, too clearly hangs in the balance.
Americans deserve to have 2012 feature Paul Ryan versus Barack Obama, locked in a battle for the future — and the soul — of the country.
— Jeffrey H. Anderson was the senior speechwriter for the secretary of health and human services during the George W. Bush administration.