These days, you hear it everywhere — from Republican donors and veteran operatives, and at Capitol Hill watering holes. A few weeks ago, it was a wishful rumor floating in the Beltway ether. Now, sources close to the Romney campaign say it’s for real, that the taciturn former Massachusetts governor is quietly warming to the idea.
Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the budget king of the GOP, may be Mitt Romney’s veep.
“Ryan is very highly respected not only by the candidate, but by Romney’s policy shop,” says Tom Rath, a Romney adviser. “Beyond the political relationship, he has a good personal relationship with Romney, and he has been a strong and reliable surrogate since the primary.”
For months, Ryan has been considered a dark horse for the number-two spot. At age 42, he has accomplished much, such as winning seven straight congressional races and authoring his party’s blueprint for entitlement reform. But his lack of executive experience, and his criticism of the Bay State’s health-care program, made his chances look relatively remote.
Yet behind the scenes, Ryan’s stock has been steadily rising. Romney, a former Bain Capital consultant who relishes data and metrics, has clicked with the youthful Badger State wonk. They have campaigned together and speak frequently on the phone, comparing notes on policy and strategy. And earlier this year, with Ryan’s blessing, Romney hired three of Ryan’s Budget Committee advisers to help him in Boston.
“Romney has spoken out about how we can’t let ourselves evolve into an entitlement society, so you can see why Ryan is attracted to Romney,” says former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour. “You can also see why Romney likes Ryan: He’s bright, articulate, and courageous. He’s willing to tell the truth to the American people, and he understands entrepreneurship. He’s also from Wisconsin, which is an important state.”
In late June, National Review Online reported that the Romney campaign was seriously vetting Ryan — and that Ryan had shared paperwork detailing his financial and personal records with a handful of Romney’s Boston-based counselors.
Since then, sources say, Ryan has slowly floated to the top of Romney’s vice-presidential shortlist. In conversations with senior advisers and donors — at the campaign’s summer retreat in Park City, Utah, and at his lakefront home in New Hampshire — Romney has repeatedly expressed his admiration for the Wisconsin lawmaker.
“Having observed Romney and Ryan together at some events, it’s clear they have very good chemistry,” says Charlie Black, an outside adviser to the Romney campaign. “They are philosophically in tune, especially on economic and fiscal policy.”
The Romney-Ryan alliance actually began during the early days of the primary, months before Ryan formally endorsed. Romney was struggling against Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, and Ryan offered candid, private advice on numerous occasions, which Romney reportedly appreciated.
Speaking with NRO in late March, a week before Ryan endorsed him, Romney highlighted their political kinship. “We chat on a regular basis,” he said. And on policy, “we’re very much inclined in the same direction.”
Publicly, Ryan has consistently been a loyal soldier — championing Romney’s positions, especially to skeptical conservatives. “He doesn’t need to lay out new policies,” Ryan told NRO last week, when asked about Romney’s specificity. “It’s simply about getting up there and offering a vision, emphasizing the choice between two futures. It’s a counter-narrative, a myth of sorts, that [Romney] hasn’t been specific enough.”
Romney is a low-key, non-ideological nominee who has found Ryan’s support invaluable in maintaining friendly relations with the base. If he were tapped, Ryan would continue to generate conservative enthusiasm for the ticket, and he’d further reinforce Romney’s aura of number-crunching competency.
“We are big fans of Ryan,” says Sal Russo, a strategist for the Tea Party Express. “Ryan learned a lot from the great Jack Kemp,” the late fiscal hawk and the GOP’s 1996 vice-presidential nominee. “And anyone who shares Kemp’s ideas gets an A from me.”
Ryan worked as a speechwriter for Kemp and former Reagan cabinet member Bill Bennett before becoming a top Republican staffer to a couple of senators during the Clinton years. Born and raised into a large, Irish-Catholic family in Janesville, Wis., he returned there in 1998, after his stint as an aide, to run for the House.
Of course, a Ryan pick would come with some potential problems. National Journal recently dubbed him Romney’s “riskiest running mate,” owing to the Democrats’ eagerness to blast Ryan’s entitlement proposals. Conservative leaders also have some reservations about potentially sending one of the House’s leading reformers to the Naval Observatory.
“If I had my druthers, I would hope Romney would pick one of the other options,” says Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform and a Ryan supporter. “The most important thing in the first year of a Romney administration would be a U-turn on the road to serfdom, and the way to do that is by passing the Ryan budget, which requires a major mover not just at the White House, but in Congress. It’d be easier to do that with Ryan in the House, since he has walked through it already with every Republican.”
Romney, however, may want Ryan to walk through his plan with the country. It would be a bold pick, but if you have been reading the tea leaves, it wouldn’t be a surprise.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.