Politics & Policy

Ryan in the Arena, Part II

Editor’s Note: In the current National Review, we have a piece by Jay Nordlinger called “The Would-Have-Been Veep: And should-have-been veep — Paul Ryan.” Ryan is the congressman from Wisconsin who was the 2012 Republican vice-presidential nominee, running with Mitt Romney, and is the chairman of the House Budget Committee. Yesterday, we began an expansion of the magazine piece in Impromptus. For that first installment, go here.

I tell Ryan something personal, maybe something funny: When I was a kid, I was amazed by John Quincy Adams. How could someone go to the House after being president? That must have taken great humility. I’m not sure I could do it.

Ryan was never president — but he was on a national ticket, with all the attendant hoopla. How was it to return to the House, even as a major committee chairman? Any trouble adjusting?

Ryan says, “It took me about 36 hours, I suppose.” He adds, “I’m from Janesville, Wisconsin, and I never expected to be a member of Congress in the first place.”

‐I start talking about Mitt Romney, whom I admire, and who I wish had been elected president. Ryan, of course, feels the same way. Not only was Romney superbly qualified, he says, “he came at a moment in history that was perfect for him. The man and the moment . . .” — here, Ryan lets out something like a soft cry of anguish.

I say, “If the public didn’t want Romney — especially over Obama — whom would they want? I mean, whom could we put out who would appeal to the public, if Romney wasn’t good enough, over Barack Obama?”

Ryan says he understands, but just doesn’t think that way. “I’m just kind of an optimistic person. My wife always says that to me. I really always see the glass half full, not half empty.” For one thing, “life’s just more fun that way.” (True.) He says again, however, that he knows what I mean.

Does he ever . . .

#ad#‐Though not one to cry over spilt milk, Ryan indulges in a little “what if.” “I worked on a 200-day plan with Mike Leavitt,” the Utah politician who was a key Romney adviser and might well have been Romney’s White House chief of staff. The plan was for the first 200 days of a Romney administration. “We were going to take it all on. By this time, we would have had entitlement reform done, tax reform done, Obamacare would have been gone, we would be working on a rewrite of all the regulatory stuff . . .”

And this would have happened whether the Democrats or the Republicans controlled the Senate, says Ryan. There were plans either way. In the event of continued Democratic control, the Romneyites were going to mount a charm offensive, aimed at peeling off moderate Democrats. They were going to make matters comfortable for these Democrats. “I know a lot of them,” says Ryan. “Ron Wyden is a friend of mine.”

If you think about a Romney presidency, says Ryan, versus what we have now, “it’s like looking at two different countries. And that is thoroughly distressing.”

So he understands the discouragement or cynicism I have expressed. But his glass is half full, or more.

#page#‐Ryan sees the 2012 election roughly this way: The Democrats successfully married “21st-century technology” with “identity politics.” And they exploited the advantages of incumbency. Republicans have to take “a sober look” at what the Democrats did, and “make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

There are “mechanical” and “structural” issues that the party apparatus is addressing, he says. Then too, of course, “policymakers have to do a better job of clearly conveying who we are, what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it. We have to persuade a majority of the country.”

Repeating a point he made earlier in our talk, Ryan says, “Because they use our rhetoric to sell their program, I feel like we can win. If liberal progressives were really candid about what it is they want to do, they wouldn’t be able to pass their program.”

In sum, “I’m not demoralized,” says Ryan. “We’ve got our work cut out for us, but it’s doable.”

#ad#‐I then talk about the vice-presidential debate — the one in 2012, pitting Joe Biden against Ryan. I say, “Watching at home, I thought Biden was blowing it, big-time. Because he was behaving like such a jerk.” (Rude, snorting, foolish, generally boorish.) Did Ryan, too, sitting on the stage, think Biden was blowing it? Yes. “I was excited,” says Ryan.

He and his team had figured that Biden’s aim would be to rattle him — to get under his skin, and make him lose his cool. That way, he could show that the 42-year-old congressman lacked the temperament for national office. Instead, Ryan was unflappable, and Biden was flapping.

Sitting there next to Biden, Ryan thought this: His tactics aren’t working, and it’s bothering him. He is increasing his crazy antics. I’m in control of my emotions, and he’s not in control of his. I’m going to stick to my path, because I want him to keep doing what he’s doing.

In fact, Ryan tells me, “I had to pull, I don’t know, four or five punches, rhetorically,” just to stay out of Biden’s way. He did not want to engage in tit-for-tat. He thought: Some things are better left unsaid, and seen instead. He looks ridiculous. It may be good for his base, but not for the country at large.

‐On Election Day, the “base” and others reelected Obama and Biden. Had Ryan expected to win? Yes, he did.

‐I ask, “How are Obama and Biden treating you now?” Nicely, he says. Respectfully. They are complimentary. “I think because I sort of shared the stage with them, so to speak, they consider me more of a peer, and they treat me that way.”

Thanks for joining me today, ladies and gentlemen. I’ll wrap up tomorrow with talk of defense, foreign policy, William E. Miller (ring a bell?), and more.

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