Republican Kevin McCarthy of California, the House majority whip, first met Paul Ryan more than a decade ago, when McCarthy was a staffer for congressman Bill Thomas, the former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Even then, McCarthy recalls, he was impressed with Ryan’s grasp of complicated fiscal issues. Ryan was only in his early 30s, and he looked even younger, but he had the knowledge of a senior member and none of the usual swagger.
Once McCarthy won a House seat in 2006, following Thomas’s retirement, he quickly became friends with Ryan. As relatively young members of the House Republican minority, they clicked, and they frequently discussed their unease about the direction of their party, especially its tendency to spend too much. During the twilight years of the Bush administration, the pair began to discuss a congressional Republican renewal, with policy and fresh leadership at the fore.
Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, then the House minority whip, was another key member of their kitchen cabinet. The trio, dubbed the “young guns” by Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard, slowly made their mark on the conference. Ryan, as ranking member of the budget committee, crafted a new fiscal thesis for House Republicans, drafting reforms for Medicare and Social Security. Cantor played the manager, working with party leaders and pushing the message. McCarthy, for his part, was the recruiter — a political scout seeking new Republican candidates to run in toss-up House districts.
As the 2010 midterms approached, McCarthy, Ryan, and Cantor felt confident about their chances of retaking the House. They wrote a book together, Young Guns, about their vision for the conference and the country. And after Republicans swept in November, winning a hefty majority, all three congressmen found themselves in positions of power. Ryan became the budget chairman, Cantor became the majority leader, and McCarthy became the whip, the House’s third-ranking Republican. Since then, McCarthy says, Ryan’s biggest achievement hasn’t only been his clear-eyed leadership on policy matters, but also teaching new House members about those issues.
In early 2011, after the 80-plus House Republican freshmen arrived on Capitol Hill, McCarthy, Ryan, and Cantor huddled and agreed that they had a slight problem. Many tea-party candidates had campaigned on fiscal reform, but when they were confronted with details about certain proposals, or asked to explain Ryan’s budget, they stumbled. There was genuine energy but little coherency. The consensus about the stakes, and the scope of the challenges, had yet to be fully formed. To fix this, McCarthy asked Ryan to hold a series of “listening sessions” in his spacious, first floor Capitol office.
Those meetings, complete with Ryan’s PowerPoint presentations and wonky charts, made Ryan a mentor to many members on fiscal and economic issues. After years of spending most of his time on the budget committee, Ryan became an unofficial member of the leadership, guiding members on the budget. Meetings were often small, with Ryan working with about ten members over the course of an hour, answering questions as the attendees sipped coffee.
As he watched his friend accept the vice-presidential selection over the weekend, McCarthy was struck by Ryan’s speeches. Ryan’s tone and approach, he tells me, were quite similar to his talks last year. If Ryan can find a way to communicate to the country as well as he did to House freshmen, McCarthy says, it’ll change the entire debate.
“He has been a teacher to so many others,” McCarthy says. “During the listening sessions, he sketched out how the entire federal government works, pointing out where and why there are some real challenges.” Ryan’s talent, he says, isn’t so much lecturing but channeling the broad desire for reform into a discussion of budget details. “He would get into how far people want to go with the budget,” McCarthy says. “A lot of people didn’t realize about how much our fiscal house was in disorder, about how bad things have gotten.”
“He’d stand there, laying out the PowerPoint and answering the questions, talking from an economist’s point of view about where things could go from here,” McCarthy recalls. “What makes him different is that he is able to engage with people at their level; he doesn’t come at things as an expert, looking to impress.” In Congress and in electoral politics, McCarthy says, that makes a difference.
“Members kept coming back multiple times to the listening sessions,” McCarthy chuckles. Inside the Beltway, where everyone has a packed schedule, “that’s a good sign of success,” he says. “People really wanted to talk more, to learn more. It was a continual process.” By mid-April 2011, House Republicans were united behind Ryan and his budget passed the House with near-unanimous party support.
McCarthy predicts that Ryan will be successful in making a sober case on fiscal issues to independents, even if Democrats attempt to demonize him as extremist. “Paul takes the politics out of things,” he says. “It’s never about putting one party over the other. He just lays out the facts. You watch him inside our meetings or on television, and he’s not given the same kind of treatment as other politicians. People seem to sense that what he’s doing is driven by solutions. That’s what gets people to listen, to put away the politics, and to start to think.”
“Now he has a big stage, a national audience,” McCarthy says. “All the Democrats are talking about is politics and all Paul is talking about is policy. And all of the issues that Paul and the rest of House Republicans have been talking about for years are going to get some attention. People are going to be able to make a decision on policy.”
If anyone can do it, it’s Ryan, McCarthy says. “I’ve met a lot of people in elected office, and Paul is the first person where I ever said, ‘This person should be president.’ He’s never dreamed of running for it, and he’s not a guy who is caught up in doing things for a political base. But that’s what made me say, years ago, that he should be president.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.