Paul Ryan spent the summer and fall in the national spotlight, but this winter he’s a subdued presence. He’s rarely granting interviews, and his public appearances have been scattered, with the most high profile a speech at the Kemp Foundation dinner. His closest friends say that he wants to return to his work quietly, and that he’s uninterested in playing a prominent role in the fiscal-cliff debate, even though he’s the GOP’s reigning budget expert.
“His speech at the Kemp dinner, where he spoke with Marco Rubio, showed a willingness to rejoin the battle of ideas,” says former congressman Vin Weber, a former colleague of Ryan’s at Empower America. “He also shared the stage, which was smart. But when it comes to the fiscal cliff, he’s not trying to be the star, and he isn’t looking to fight with Boehner.”
Ryan’s low-key presence has several political implications. First and foremost, it boosts Speaker Boehner. As a popular former vice-presidential nominee, Ryan could have easily asserted himself as a leading player. Because Ryan hasn’t done that, Boehner has been, without question, the chief negotiator and spokesman for House Republicans. Ryan’s reluctance to enter the fray also means any conservative rebellion will almost certainly lack his blessing.
“I think Ryan sees Boehner as trying to do the right thing,” says Yuval Levin, a longtime Ryan associate and policy scholar. “If there is a deal, he will evaluate it. But he is letting the process play out.”
As Ryan sources explain, the 42-year-old congressman wants to let Boehner do his job, and to get back to a routine of his own. Ryan’s main project remains the budget committee, where he has served as chairman since January 2011. He sees his seat as an optimal platform to shape the national debate over the long term. In his speech to the Kemp Foundation, he spoke about poverty and civil society, which showed an eagerness to get beyond his reputation as a green-eyeshades budget maven.
As Ryan has mulled his future, Boehner has welcomed him back into the fold. They’re not buddies, but they’re working together behind the scenes as Boehner negotiates with the White House.
The benefits for both men are clear: Ryan keeps his head down during a negotiation that may end badly, and focuses on the big policy picture as he looks, perhaps, toward the 2016 presidential campaign. Boehner gets more leeway, because if Ryan is happy, the speaker’s critics (who are close with Ryan) tend to be more reserved. Though a handful of conservative members can’t stand Boehner, they implicitly take their cues from Ryan.
Since the election, Boehner has made several overtures, looking to sustain his helpful bond with Ryan. For example, he won Ryan’s appreciation last month when he granted Ryan a waiver to keep his chairmanship. Other chairmen lost their gavel, due to conference rules, which limit committee chairmen to six-year terms. Ryan, however, was able to hold on to his post. Ryan’s colleagues say that gesture solidified Ryan’s relationship with the speaker.
Boehner also invited Ryan to sit in on the fiscal-cliff strategy sessions. Ryan has participated in nearly every meeting with the House Republican leadership and has been urged to give his candid take on Boehner’s playbook. Even though he’s not a member of the elected leadership team, the elected members view him as an equal.
As a former congressional staffer, Ryan has reportedly enjoyed getting back into the game on Capitol Hill. Most notably, he worked with Boehner to craft the Republicans’ latest bargaining position, which was outlined in a letter last week. Ryan’s signature on the letter sent his most public message yet that he and Boehner are teammates in the debt negotiations. Ryan may be saying little to cable anchors, but he’s by no means on the outside looking in.
An incidental effect of the Romney campaign was to help cement staff-level relations between the two. Boehner’s spokesman, Michael Steel, served as Ryan’s senior press aide on the campaign trail, and Conor Sweeney, Ryan’s spokesman, spent months traveling to swing states with Steel and Boehner aide Brendan Buck, who also served as a Ryan campaign adviser. The Boehner and Ryan staffs communicate daily about the latest news, hoping to project a united Republican front.
There have been some minor bumps along the way, such as last month’s race for conference chairman, which is the fourth-ranking spot in the House Republican hierarchy. Representative Tom Price (R., Ga.), Ryan’s friend, lost his bid against Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R., Wash.), a Boehner protégé. But Boehner sources point out that this disagreement doesn’t amount to much, since Ryan pledged months ago to back Price.
Where Ryan will land on a fiscal-cliff agreement, should one be struck, is unclear, but his ties to Boehner will be a factor regardless. If the deal includes tax-rate hikes, Ryan will have a tough choice to make, since conservatives (and future primary voters) would look unfavorably upon them. But if a deal were to include enough entitlement reforms or spending cuts, House insiders think he’d probably support Boehner and make the case to conservatives that the House GOP cut the best possible deal.
Ryan and Boehner don’t socialize together, but they are now effectively partners. How long this partnership lasts, and how long Ryan stays relatively mum, is another question. For now, it’s a sign that Boehner negotiates with real conservative weight behind him. There are rumors of conservative discontent, and possible challenges to the speaker, but when it comes to Ryan, Boehner has an ally, not a foe.
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.