Defining Ryan
His record shows him as a “half a loaf” Republican: bipartisan when necessary.

Senator Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) and Representative Paul Ryan (R., Wisc.)


Michael Tanner

With more than a third of American voters telling pollsters that they don’t yet know enough about Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan to have an opinion of him, the race to define the Republican congressman is fully joined.

Democrats clearly want to paint Ryan as an unbending ideologue who refuses to compromise and is unwilling to work with his opponents. Already Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod has taken to calling Ryan a “right-wing ideologue” and “quite extreme.” President Obama himself refers to Ryan as “the ideological leader of Republicans in Congress.”

It’s impossible to deny that there has been an ideological component to Ryan’s career in Washington. He has been an articulate spokesman for the idea of smaller, less costly government, and he is perhaps Congress’s best-known advocate of entitlement reform. There is no doubt that in his heart he prefers markets to government control.

But any effort to paint him as an inflexible ideologue runs up against his demonstrable tendency toward pragmatism.

Throughout his time in Washington, Ryan has been the classic “half a loaf” type of conservative. Time and again, he has shown that he is willing to compromise and take far less than he had originally sought, as long as he is moving incrementally in the direction he wants to go. You won’t find Ryan on the short end of any 434-to-1 votes. 

Take, for example, the infamous “Ryan budget.” Yes, it cuts spending and reforms Medicare — though not Social Security — but it was far from the most fiscally conservative budget offered by Republicans this year. Just compare Ryan’s budget with the one proposed by Senator Rand Paul (R., Ky). Ryan’s budget takes 30 years to reach balance. Paul’s would have balanced the budget in five years. Ryan would cut government spending by $4.1 trillion over ten years. Paul would have cut spending an additional $4 trillion over that period. Ryan’s budget didn’t touch Social Security. Paul’s would have raised Social Security’s retirement age and means-tested the program. Now, that is a fiscally conservative budget.

In fact, Senators Jim DeMint (R., S.C.) and Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) also offered budget proposals that cut spending more than Ryan’s budget did. Ryan was willing to push the envelope on spending cuts, but only as far as he could while still getting the votes of moderate as well as conservative Republicans. Yes, his budget is conservative, but it is hardly radical.

According to the National Journal, Ryan works with Democrats about as often as any Republican does. Most famously, he collaborated with liberal senator Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) to develop the latest iteration of his Medicare reform plan. In fact, the evolution of Ryan’s Medicare plan shows both the promise and the perils of his pragmatism.