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.
According to Boehner’s advisers, the speaker appreciates Ryan’s willingness to be a conduit between the leadership and the House GOP’s many blocs. Conservatives, for their part, appreciate Ryan’s willingness to push for conservative policy when he’s meeting with Boehner.
“I’ve known the speaker for a long time. We’re both midwestern guys, and I went to college in his district,” Ryan says. “We’ve always gotten along. But we’re also of different generations. We have different styles. But we do understand each other quite well, and we listen to each other.”
Ryan says his close relationship with Boehner is, more than anything, about his desire for Republican unity in a period of Democratic control. “Forget the palace intrigue,” Ryan says, when I press him for more details about their friendship. “I’m looking to build a unified conference and a coherent strategy, even if they inevitably require varying tactics.”
In the coming weeks, Ryan will begin to hold “listening sessions” for House Republicans as he prepares to unveil his budget. This time, he says, the budget will balance the federal books in a decade. A group of House conservatives pitched that idea to Ryan, who then sold it to Boehner.
Initially, sources say, a handful of Republicans were hesitant to embrace that framework, since a ten-year balanced budget will surely include some controversial entitlement reforms. But due to Ryan’s blessing, and his ability to get conservatives to cooperate, it quickly became policy.
Reflecting on that ten-year pledge, Ryan says it’s indicative of how the early budget talks among Republicans have gone well. “We don’t have a baseline yet, but I think we can do it,” he says. “Republicans are demoralized, but we will chart a reasonable path to prevent a debt crisis.”
“Look, we haven’t disintegrated into a circular firing squad,” Ryan chuckles. “Of course, that’s exactly what the president wants, so we have to be careful and keep talking to each other. That’s going to be critical, and we’re developing a core of the conference that wants to work together.”
Beyond discussing policy with conservative House leaders, such as Tom Price of Georgia and Jim Jordan of Ohio, Ryan continues to reach out to outside scholars, such as Yuval Levin and former education secretary Bill Bennett, who have been casually advising the congressman for years.
Moving forward, “Republicans have to leverage our majority to get spending reforms and entitlement reforms, but we have to do it right,” Ryan says. “We have to propose very specific alternatives to President Obama’s second-term policies. We have to counter his agenda.”
And any success, Ryan adds, will depend on prudence. “I believe conservatives are maturing,” he says. “We’re figuring out how to fight intelligently for what we believe in to make a difference for people. It’s not going to be easy, but there is a sincere effort to find a way back.”
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.