Romney on Ryan, and More
The candidate talks budgets, allies, books, and the state of the primary.


Robert Costa

Mitt Romney conferred with GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Thursday, including Representative Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman. In an interview with National Review Online, Romney praised Ryan’s budget, and hinted that if he wins the nomination, he will work closely with the Wisconsin legislator to craft a unified fiscal agenda with congressional Republicans.

“We’re very much inclined in the same direction,” Romney says. “We spoke together about my plans on Medicare, for instance, and ultimately the Wyden-Ryan bill is very similar, if not identical, to what I proposed some time ago. We all have ideas about what should be done with Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security — and we’re on the same page on those issues.”

“We want to solve our long-term balance-sheet problem, and by that I mean Medicare and Social Security,” Romney says. “We also want to solve our deficit by getting us to a balanced budget through two things — one is spending reductions and program eliminations. And the second part of that is a pro-growth strategy, associated with tax policies that encourage economic growth.”

Romney acknowledges that his tax proposal is not identical to Ryan’s budget, but he argues that the thrust of the two documents is the same. “My policy, of course, is a little different,” Romney says. “He’s gone to the 25–10 approach,” eliminating tax brackets. “I prefer taking a 20 percent tax cut across the board on marginal rates and also eliminating the [alternative minimum tax] and the death tax. So we are similar, not identical, and we chat on a regular basis.”

Romney is confident that in a general-election campaign, his campaign advisers would work closely with congressional staffers to keep the party, broadly speaking, united, and more important, prepared for upcoming legislative battles. As a businessman and as Massachusetts governor, he says, he learned the importance of building relationships among key players, and he has carried on that approach as a presidential candidate, urging his senior team to reach out.

“My chief policy adviser, Lanhee Chen, speaks with a number of the staff members on the Hill, from both the Senate and the House, to get their perspective,” Romney says, to give one example.

Romney adds, however, that governing is about more than coordinating staffers. Another part of the equation, he says, is working closely with conservative leaders. After meeting on Thursday morning with Ryan, Romney met with Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.), a tea-party favorite. Their conversation, he says, was positive, and he calls DeMint, who endorsed him during the 2008 presidential campaign, a longtime friend and a potential ally, should he win the White House.

“We gathered and chatted with several people that he had pulled together, discussing the challenges ahead, and frankly, how much is going to need to be done in the first year or so of a new administration,” Romney says. “We agreed that we’re on track to hit a Greece-like wall at some point in the future, and we talked about the urgency of taking a series of actions that ultimately eliminates the deficit and solves our balance-sheet woes.”

After the confab, DeMint told reporters that he is “excited about the possibility of [Romney’s] being our nominee,” and that the rest of the primary field should carefully weigh whether an extended scrap would be healthy for the party. “I think we all need to look at the presidential primary and encourage the candidates to do a little self-reflection,” he said. “The sooner we can make a decision, the sooner we can focus on the real problem, which is Obama.”

Turning to the primary calendar, Romney is optimistic about his chances in the Wisconsin primary, which will be held on April 3. His strong victory in the Illinois primary, he says, shows that his economy-driven campaign is connecting with midwestern conservatives. But he’s not taking anything for granted. In addition to his time with Ryan, he met on Thursday with numerous members of the state’s congressional delegation, who advised him that the political scene in Madison remains tumultuous, due to the upcoming vote on whether to recall Republican governor Scott Walker, who passed a budget-control act last year against the wishes of powerful public-sector unions.

Romney told the group of Badger State Republicans that he “fully supports” Walker and his continued efforts to balance the state’s budget. “Now, I certainly haven’t walked in his moccasins,” Romney chuckles, in terms of dealing with Wisconsin’s wild political scene. “But in terms of understanding the need to rein in the excesses, particularly in pensions and benefits for government unions, that is something which he appropriately took on.”

After Wisconsin, Maryland, and the District of Columbia hold their early-April primaries, there will be a three-week gap until the next contests. Then, on April 24, five states — Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania — will hold their primaries. Romney knows that former senator Rick Santorum, his chief rival for the nomination, is already focusing heavily on his native Pennsylvania, a critical swing state.

When asked, Romney resists calling the Pennsylvania primary a must-win for Santorum. But the primary, he says, may be nearing its conclusion, since Republicans, in a variety of ways, are embracing his candidacy. “I hope that the message has already been sent,” he says. “We’ve got a strong and compelling campaign. We’re on a good track to become the nominee. And with folks like Jeb Bush coming on board, people recognize that we’re on a very compelling course.”