Tampa, Fla. — The official line is that Paul Ryan spent two weeks preparing for his speech at the Republican National Convention. In the beginning, there were late-night chats about the theme with his speechwriters, John McConnell and Matthew Scully. Later came the practice sessions at a Holiday Inn Express in his hometown of Janesville, Wis., and in the final days, there were frantic editing sessions aboard the campaign plane and inside the Marriott hotel near the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
But according to sources close to him, Ryan rarely sweated the preparation, even though his Wednesday-night appearance before the cheering throngs of Republican delegates was, in a sense, his national introduction. To the 42-year-old congressman, who was elected to the House in 1998, the speech was always a continuation of an argument he has made since he came to Washington, two decades ago, to write speeches for his mentor, Jack Kemp, the late supply-side Congressman.
Ryan has accomplished much since he was a twentysomething aide, and his adherence to conservative principles is, evidently, as strong as ever. He took care to cite Kemp tonight, in the biggest speech of his political career, to send a message about who Paul Ryan is as a thinker — to go beyond the anecdotes about his days flipping burgers at McDonald’s or his recent efforts as chairman of the House Budget Committee.
“As with Kemp, Paul has always been a happy warrior, and he remains a happy warrior,” says Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former Congressional Budget Office director. “Democrats try to portray him as the austerity king, but he is a champion for growth.”
Standing at the podium, Ryan ably weaved his biography and his political philosophy into a celebration of economic freedom and an articulation of the GOP ticket’s brand, which is a combination of competency and fiscal courage. “My dad used to say to me, ‘Son, you have a choice. You can be part of the problem or you can be part of the solution,’” Ryan said. “Mitt Romney and I have made ours: Before the math and the momentum overwhelm us all, we are going to solve this nation’s economic problems.”
“And I’m going to level with you: We don’t have that much time,” Ryan said, as the activists nodded. “But if we are serious, and smart, and we lead, we can do this.”
Since Romney tapped Ryan to be his running mate earlier this month, Ryan has worn many hats on the campaign trail, from attack dog to budget expert. And Wednesday’s remarks had elements of all those roles. There were withering critiques of President Obama’s economic record and a sober discussion about federal spending. Ryan, however, worked to personalize each passage. On Capitol Hill, he often sticks to data-heavy speeches on the House floor, which win plaudits from politicos, but here, speaking to the entire country, he painted his vision with broad strokes.
“So here we are, $16 trillion in debt and still [Obama] does nothing,” Ryan said. “They have no answer to this simple reality: We need to stop spending money we don’t have.”
Emotion was another component. Ryan’s mention of his mother’s example brought him to tears. “Mom was 50 when my dad died,” he said. “She got on a bus every weekday for years, and rode 40 miles each morning to Madison. She earned a new degree and learned new skills to start her small business. . . . And it transformed my mom from a widow in grief to a small businesswoman whose happiness wasn’t just in the past. Her work gave her hope. It made our family proud. And to this day, my mom is my role model.”
Ryan also sought a connection with youth voters. “College graduates should not have to live out their twenties in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life,” he said.
“Paul Ryan was a shot in the arm,” says Ralph Reed, a veteran conservative activist, who appreciated Ryan’s reflections on the importance of family. “For people who aren’t familiar with everything he has done, he showed them that he is a full-spectrum conservative.”
When he shifted to entitlements, the so-called third rail of American politics, Ryan talked again about his 78-year-old mother, who is a Florida resident and a Medicare beneficiary. And as he has on the trail, Ryan blasted Obama for using billions from Medicare funds to partially fund the federal health-care law.
“Our opponents can consider themselves on notice,” Ryan said. “In this election, on this issue, the usual posturing on the Left isn’t going to work. Mitt Romney and I know the difference between protecting a program and raiding it. Ladies and gentlemen, our nation needs this debate. We want this debate. We will win this debate.”
Part of the reason for the Ryan pick, one Romney adviser says, is Ryan’s ability to make reform understandable to average voters. And so, though it wasn’t the heart of the speech, health care featured prominently.
“Obamacare comes to more than 2,000 pages of rules, mandates, taxes, fees, and fines that have no place in a free country,” Ryan said. “The president has declared that the debate over government-controlled health care is over. That will come as news to the millions of Americans who will elect Mitt Romney so we can repeal Obamacare.”
Humor featured, too. Ryan mused that Romney’s music tastes are similar to the tunes that are played in hotel elevators. “My playlist starts with AC/DC and ends with Zeppelin,” he said, as the delegates chuckled.
Behind the scenes, Ryan’s speech, which was originally 4,400 words, was shortened to 3,200. Romney’s advisers wanted to make sure Ryan did not go over the television networks’ time limit.
But the word count and the jokes were not the story. At its core, Ryan’s rousing speech was a conservative rallying cry, very much in the tradition of Kemp, Ronald Reagan, and Barry Goldwater. Those men urged Americans to shrink government and empower individuals, and Ryan did just that in the arena by the bay, and he even harkened back to Reagan’s famous “time for choosing” speech in 1964.
“You are entitled to the clearest possible choice because the time for choosing is drawing near,” Ryan said near the end, his voice rising. “We will not try to replace our founding principles, we will reapply our founding principles. The work ahead will be hard. These times demand the best of us, all of us, but we can do this.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.