For a moment last Friday, Paul Ryan had the makings of a man on a national ticket. When he arrived at the J. W. Marriott hotel in downtown Washington, D.C., reporters asked him a flurry of questions about Mitt Romney, and then security guards whisked him through the lobby.
But the moment and that whiff of a presidential campaign were fleeting. Ryan was there only to have lunch with Romney. The reporters and the burly men at the hotel’s entrance merely hinted at the recent past, when Romney and Ryan were the most famous Republicans in America.
Ever since their defeat, Romney has been absent from the scene, spending his days at his beachfront mansion in La Jolla, Calif. Other than a lunch at the White House and his shopping visits to the local Costco, his public appearances have been rare. Similarly, Ryan kept a low profile until the inauguration. “It was just good manners,” he tells me.
To use one of Ryan’s favorite words, his winter of few interviews was “prudent.” But his post-election reserve and even-tempered manner reflect more than his sensibility; they also reflect his politics. He is deeply concerned about the GOP’s future, and the theme of sagacity has been a mainstay of his speeches, such as the talk he gave on Saturday at the National Review Institute’s summit.
Inside the Republican cloakroom, it’s the heart of his message. “Prudence is good judgment in the art of governing,” Ryan said, speaking at the NRI gathering. “We have to make decisions anchored in reality, and take responsibility for the consequences.”
On Capitol Hill, examples of Ryan’s own prudence are plentiful. Working with Speaker John Boehner, he engineered the GOP’s debt-limit strategy, in which the House passed a short-term extension that also pressured Senate Democrats to craft a budget. During the fiscal-cliff negotiations, he was a stalwart Boehner supporter, and one of only 85 Republicans to stick by the speaker when the compromise came to the floor. “If you think a bill should pass, you should vote for it,” Ryan says. “I had problems with that bill, but I wanted to prevent tax increases.”
Ryan’s approach has once again established him as influential player. Sources say Boehner and other House veterans have privately praised his commitment to governing, and his historical understanding of Republican risks during divided government.
“What is normal for me now? Well, I’m settling into my groove and getting back to normal,” Ryan says. “I’m chairman of the budget committee and one of the conservative leaders in the House, so my job is to do those things well, and to work hard to make some progress as the loyal opposition.”
At a House GOP retreat earlier this month in Williamsburg, Va., Ryan spent hours huddling with backbenchers, calmly explaining the perils of default. He did the same during a recent luncheon for the conservative Republican Study Committee, of which he’s a member.