Politics & Policy

The Ryan Way

Mitt Romney has a history of elevating young talent.

As Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin has risen in the vice-presidential sweepstakes, a few political observers have joked that the athletic 42-year-old congressman, with his jet-black hair and square jaw, looks like one of Romney’s five sons. But according to Romney confidants, Ryan’s appeal to the former Massachusetts governor is more professional than filial. 

“He is the kind of smart, young guy that Mitt likes and Mitt would have probably hired at Bain,” says Mike Murphy, a former Romney adviser. “He shares the intellectual talent and positive outlook of the guys who Mitt mentored for decades.” 

Back when he was running Bain Capital, Romney was known for following a management method called the “Bain Way.” In their book, The Real Romney, Michael Kranish and Scott Helman describe it as “intensely analytical and data driven.” It required a “healthy ego,” the authors write, “to go into a business and tell an owner how to run his own firm better.”

It also required a specific type of talent. Bain Capital operated as a small shop, and Romney took care to hire ambitious and serious business-school graduates — fresh-thinking young men he could develop, not just seasoned Wall Street hands.

In the late 1970s, “I was asked to help recruit bright, recently graduated MBAs to join the firm,” Romney recalls in his book, No Apology. “We were a cutting-edge company, we paid high salaries, and we usually landed the cream of the crop.”

Edward Conard, a partner at Bain Capital from 1993 to 1997 and the author of Unintended Consequences, tells NRO that Romney’s effectiveness was sharpened by his relationships with the rising-star consultants he recruited, so he is not surprised to see Romney form a bond with the analytical Ryan. Romney may not have been an overly warm figure in the office, he says, but he was clearly drawn to uber-competent thinkers. 

“I saw it firsthand,” Conard says. “Romney challenged us to challenge each other, and he was never afraid to ask tough questions, or answer them. He surrounded himself with the sharpest, most talented guys and ran the place like a consulting firm, where employees were expected to create value, to do their homework, and present proposals rooted in facts. In Ryan, you see that kind of politician; he’s not slinging bull.”

Inside Romney’s Boston headquarters, aspects of the Bain Way have seeped into the campaign effort. Spencer Zwick, a 32-year-old private-equity investor, who was dubbed Romney’s “sixth son” by Politico, runs Romney’s finance team. Bob White, a mid-fifties former Bain Capital partner, is one of Romney’s closest advisers, and a frequent presence at Romney’s side.

“Bob White is an important adviser, and he has known the governor since the early days at Bain,” says Ron Kaufman, a Romney adviser and former White House political director. “While they’re not the entire campaign, people like Spencer and Bob come out of the business world, know the governor very well, and have perspectives and skills that are valued.”

A number of Romney sources say Romney runs his campaign “horizontally,” with advisers working on specific projects, and Romney the obvious overseer of the enterprise. This approach is similar to how Bain Capital was run, with a tight-knit group of senior partners reporting directly to the chief executive, presenting him with various options, information, and analysis.

These days, many of Romney’s top political advisers are youthful Republican whiz kids, such as Lanhee Chen, the policy director, who holds four degrees from Harvard, and Alex Wong, another youthful Harvard graduate and policy guru. 

At Bain, “[Romney] searched for partners who fit his comfort zone,” Kranish and Helman write. Chen and Wong fit that mold, as does Ryan, who is part of a kitchen cabinet of business leaders and policy experts who talk regularly with Romney. 

“We’re very much inclined in the same direction,” Romney told NRO in March. “We [have spoken] together about my plans on Medicare, for instance, and ultimately the Wyden-Ryan bill is very similar, if not identical, to what I proposed some time ago. We all have ideas about what should be done with Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security — and we’re on the same page.” 

According to Romney insiders, Romney deeply appreciated Ryan’s willingness to privately share his critique of the campaign during the heated Republican primary, where Romney often struggled to make his case. As he watched from afar, long before he endorsed, Ryan drafted a series of detailed strategy and policy advisories, and discussed them with Romney over the phone. For Romney, those corporate-style memos made a lasting impression — and catapulted Ryan into Romney’s circle, where he has remained since.

“Both men are intelligent and very empirically minded, driven by facts,” says Peter Wehner, a friend of Ryan’s and a former Bush and Reagan administration official. “When he looks at Ryan, Romney probably sees somebody like himself, a person he’d want at his side in the business world or the political world. They approach complicated problems the same way.” 

Since Romney’s veep search has been hush-hush, no one knows whether Ryan’s budding alliance with Romney will put him on the Republican ticket. But if Romney’s personnel practices — at Bain and on the campaign trail — are any indication, it would make sense that Ryan is a leading candidate for the job. 

On the other hand, Bain Capital isn’t always going to translate into the political world. “Who Romney hired at Bain and who he picks for vice president are two very different things,” Murphy says. “Romney may want more of a political operative to be V.P., since the position isn’t about being a policy star, which is Ryan’s strength, but going to a lot of state funerals, et cetera.” 

Still, Murphy concedes, “the Bain analogy fits here, because Ryan has connected with Romney,” personally, politically, and as savvy wonks. And at the eleventh hour of the selection process, that kind of relationship, a type Romney has cultivated for years, could tip the veep scales in the congressman’s favor.

Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.

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