Magazine | March 24, 2014, Issue

The Would-Have-Been Veep

And should-have-been veep—Paul Ryan

Washington, D.C. — Paul Ryan is having a quick lunch in his office. And he’s eating what you might expect him to eat: a salad. He does not have the build of a cheeseburger-eater. In his office is a bust of Churchill, and a photo of Lincoln, and a photo of Vince Lombardi. The third of these men, as you know, was the coach of the Green Bay Packers.

Ryan, as you also know, is a Wisconsin congressman. He is chairman of the House Budget Committee. And, in 2012, he was the vice-presidential nominee of the Republican party, running with Mitt Romney. We talk a little football — and then get down to business.

I say, “I think I’ve heard the word ‘establishment’ more in the last year than I have in all the preceding years of my life.” Chuckling, Ryan says, “Isn’t that funny?” Many Republicans position themselves as true conservatives fighting the establishment — an establishment that includes Ryan. I ask him, “Are you an establishment politician?” He says, “I’m not even going to touch that one.” He then gives a sample of his conservative bona fides.

In 2008, he says, he put out a budget that everyone tried to talk him out of. It was known as the “roadmap,” and it was widely considered too severe, or too principled. “The political hacks were livid,” he says. The National Republican Congressional Committee told everyone to run away from it. Ryan had only eight co-sponsors. And now that budget is thoroughly mainstream. Once a right-wing “pariah” (his word), Ryan is today “establishment.” He and his like have shifted the center of gravity in the Republican party, he says.

The current Republican debate, internally, is over tactics, he says — not principles “or even the policies we want to achieve.” Just tactics.

His advice for fellow Republicans is, “Take a deep breath and put it all in perspective.” Infighting can be “dangerous,” he says, because “we don’t have time to have a civil war. We could lose this country if we don’t win in 2014 and 2016. Obama has done a lot to advance liberal progressivism and put it on a trajectory that could be irreversible if they get another term or two in the White House.”

Ryan says that Republicans are going to have to unify, and that there is time to do so. “But the thing is, we’ve got to win a majority of Americans. We’ve got to win elections. We can’t have an Electoral College strategy with a margin of error of one state. You know what I mean?” (Yes.) “We’ve got to focus more on winning converts than on purging and burning heretics.”

In Ryan’s view, President Obama has greatly heightened the differences between the two major parties. “I think Obama sees himself as having more than just a paragraph in history. I think he sees himself as writing the final chapter of the progressive experiment.” The good news, says Ryan, is that Obama and the Democrats have to sell their progressivism “misleadingly,” “indirectly.” They cloak their intentions and program in the rhetoric of the Declaration, the Constitution, and American traditions. They can’t be candid — because people wouldn’t buy it.

Further good news, says Ryan, is that people are now seeing what Obama-style big government looks like in practice. In 2012, Romney and Ryan had to run against the idea of Obamacare — a fundamental change that was looming. Now people can see the dismaying results.

It’s not enough, says Ryan, for Republicans to say “I told you so.” “We have to be the alternative party,” showing how conservative ideas can work for all. Obama and the Left are “intellectually exhausted,” he says. “They’re talking about income inequality because they can’t talk about growth.”

When I was a kid, I tell Ryan, I was amazed at John Quincy Adams: How could he go to the House of Representatives after being president? That must have taken great humility. Ryan was never president. But he was on a national ticket, with all that hoopla. Did he have any trouble returning to life in the House, even as a major committee chairman?

“It took me about 36 hours, I suppose.” I must say — and do say — it would have taken me longer. Ryan says, “I’m from Janesville, Wisconsin, and I never expected to be a member of Congress in the first place.”

He is not one to cry over spilt milk, but he regrets that Romney did not get the chance to be president. Not only was he superbly qualified, “he came at a moment in history that was perfect for him.” Yet the voters disagreed, or thought they did.

Indulging in a little “what if,” Ryan says, “I worked on a 200-day plan with Mike Leavitt,” a key Romney adviser who might well have been Romney’s presidential 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. There were plans either way.

#page#As Ryan sees it, Obama and the Democrats won in 2012 by a galling combination of 21st-century technology, identity politics, and the advantages of incumbency. Republicans need to be ready the next time, and can be, says Ryan. “I’m not demoralized. We’ve got our work cut out for us, but it’s doable” — “it” being a presidential victory.

Watching the vice-presidential debate, I thought that Joe Biden was blowing it, big time, by behaving like . . . well, such a jerk. He was rude, snorting, and foolish. Did Ryan, too, think that Biden was blowing the debate? Yes. “I was excited.” Ryan 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 on the stage, 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.

The “base” and others reelected Obama and Biden on Election Day. Did that surprise Ryan? Yes. He expected to win.

I ask, incidentally, how Obama and Biden are treating him now. Nicely, he says. Respectfully. They are complimentary to him. “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.”

We discuss some issues, including defense: Some of us are worried that the Republican party is going wobbly on defense. They seem happy, or at least willing, to see the defense budget shrink perilously. Ryan says this worry is understandable. “We’re not all hawks anymore.” Ryan is a hawk, and, when he first came to Congress, in 1999, “we were all hawks.” But “that caucus has shrunk a bit, because we have a libertarian stream.” Still, Ryan is “not too stressed,” because the party leadership is foursquare behind defense.

The problem, he says, is that “the president really determines how this stuff goes.” The challenge for the Republican House, he says, is to “prevent him from hollowing out our force.” The Republicans are trying to “buy time,” hoping for Republican electoral victories in the near future. In a broader discussion, Ryan says that the “greatest lasting damage” of the Obama presidency may come in the realm of defense and foreign policy.

“I look at the domestic stuff, which is what I’m known for and spend a lot of time on, as fixable. All we have to do is win elections. That’s within our control as a country. We know how to make Social Security work, how to fix Medicare,” etc. “But we don’t control the mullahs, we don’t control Putin, we don’t control the arms race in the Middle East that’s about to get sparked, we don’t control the appetite we’re whetting with the Chinese by shrinking our force and giving them an incentive to catch up . . .” All this could be “a deeper hole” the country will have to climb out of.

To me, Ryan looks peppy and purposeful — far from defeated or defeatist. “You haven’t lost your appetite for politics,” I say. He says, “I prefer policy, to be honest with you. I put up with politics as a necessary means to do policy.” He likes campaigning, though. “That’s fun, being with people.”

He started out, after college, as an economist, congressional staffer, and think-tanker. He thought he would continue in that direction. Think-tankers, pundits, and similar types would do well to “get in the arena,” he says. It’s not as easy to win elections as it may look. Those who blame candidates should maybe try it themselves.

Thinking about Ryan, I think of William E. Miller. Remember him? A New York congressman, he was Barry Goldwater’s running mate in 1964. Barely more than ten years later, he was making a TV commercial for American Express, saying, “Do you know me?” Later, he would say he was more famous for that ad than for having been the Republican vice-presidential nominee.

Anyone who predicts politics should be taken with many grains of salt. But I have a feeling Paul Ryan will be “in the arena” for years or decades to come, and prominent in it.

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