How Paul Ryan captured the G.O.P.
by Ryan Lizza
One day in March, 2009, two months after the Inauguration of President Obama, Representative Paul Ryan, of Wisconsin, sat behind a small table in a cramped meeting space in his Capitol Hill office. Hunched forward in his chair, he rattled off well-rehearsed critiques of the new President’s policies and America’s lurch toward a “European” style of government. Ryan’s father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all died before their sixtieth birthdays, so Ryan, who is now forty-two, could be forgiven if he seemed like a man in a hurry. Tall and wiry, with a puff of wavy dark hair, he is nearly as well known in Washington for his punishing early-morning workouts as he is for his mastery of the federal budget. Asked to explain his opposition to Obama’s newly released budget, he replied, “I don’t have that much time.”
Ryan won his seat in 1998, at the age of twenty-eight. Like many young conservatives, he is embarrassed by the Bush years. At the time, as a junior member with little clout, Ryan was a reliable Republican vote for policies that were key in causing enormous federal budget deficits: sweeping tax cuts, a costly prescription-drug entitlement for Medicare, two wars, the multibillion-dollar bank-bailout legislation known as TARP. In all, five trillion dollars was added to the national debt. In 2006 and 2008, many of Ryan’s older Republican colleagues were thrown out of office as a result of lobbying scandals and overspending. Ryan told me recently that, as a fiscal conservative, he was “miserable during the last majority” and is determined “to do everything I can to make sure I don’t feel that misery again.”
In 2009, Ryan was striving to reintroduce himself as someone true to his ideological roots and capable of reversing his party’s reputation for fiscal profligacy. A generation of Republican leaders was gone. Ryan had already jumped ahead of more senior colleagues to become the top Republican on the House Budget Committee, and it was his job to pick apart Obama’s tax and spending plans. At the table in his office, Ryan pointed out the gimmicks that Presidents use to hide costs and conceal policy details. He deconstructed Obama’s early health-care proposal and attacked his climate-change plan. Obama’s budget “makes our tax code much less competitive,” he said, as if reading from a script. “It makes it harder for businesses to survive in the global economy, for people to save for their own retirement, and it grows our debt tremendously.” He added, “It just takes the poor trajectory our country’s fiscal state is on and exacerbates it.”
As much as he relished the battle against Obama—“European,” he repeated, with some gusto—his real fight was for the ideological identity of the Republican Party, and with colleagues who were content to simply criticize the White House. “If you’re going to criticize, then you should propose,” he told me. A fault line divided the older and more cautious Republican leaders from the younger, more ideological members. Ryan was, and remains, the leader of the attack-and-propose faction.
“I think you’re obligated to do that,” he said. “People like me who are reform-minded ignore the people who say, ‘Just criticize and don’t do anything and let’s win by default.’ That’s ridiculous.” He said he was “moving ahead without them. They don’t want to produce alternatives? That’s not going to stop me from producing an alternative.”
Ryan’s long-range plan was straightforward: to create a detailed alternative to Obama’s budget and persuade his party to embrace it. He would start in 2009 and 2010 with House Republicans, the most conservative bloc in the Party. Then, in the months before the Presidential primaries, he would focus on the G.O.P. candidates. If the plan worked, by the fall of 2012 Obama’s opponent would be running on Paul Ryan’s ideas, and in 2013 a new Republican President would be signing them into law.
Sitting in his office more than three years ago, Ryan could not have foreseen how successful his crusade to reinvent the Republican Party would be. Nearly every important conservative opinion-maker and think tank has rallied around his policies. Nearly every Republican in the House and the Senate has voted in favor of some version of his budget plan. Earlier this year, the G.O.P. Presidential candidates lavished praise on Ryan and his ideas. “I’m very supportive of the Ryan budget plan,” Mitt Romney said on March 20th, in Chicago. The following week, while campaigning in Wisconsin, he added, “I think it’d be marvellous if the Senate were to pick up Paul Ryan’s budget and adopt it and pass it along to the President.”
To envisage what Republicans would do if they win in November, the person to understand is not necessarily Romney, who has been a policy cipher all his public life. The person to understand is Paul Ryan.
Janesville, Wisconsin, where Ryan was born and still lives, is a riverfront city of sixty-four thousand people in the southeast corner of the state, between Madison and Chicago. Three families, the Ryans, the Fitzgeralds, and the Cullens, sometimes called the Irish Mafia, helped develop the town, especially in the postwar era. The Ryans were major road builders, and today Ryan, Inc., started in 1884 by Paul’s great-grandfather, is a national construction firm. The historic Courthouse section of Janesville is still thick with members of the Ryan clan. At last count, there were eight other Ryan households within a six-block radius of his house, a large Georgian Revival with six bedrooms and eight bathrooms that is on the National Register of Historic Places.
“I grew up on the block I now live on,” Ryan told me recently. We were sitting in his new, more spacious Capitol Hill office, one of the spoils of being in the majority after the 2010 elections. “My aunt and uncle live across the street from me,” he said. “My cousin is next door, my brother is a block away.” Ryan’s line of the family strayed from the construction business, which is now run by his cousin Adam. His grandfather and father became lawyers instead.
Unlike most members of Congress these days, Ryan is relatively accessible to reporters. “The key to understanding me is really simple,” he said. “I am not trying to be anybody other than who I actually am.” Even his ideological foes comment on his friendliness and good nature. After his sophomore year in high school, back in 1986, he worked the grill at McDonald’s. “The manager didn’t think I had the social skills to work the counter,” he said. “And now I’m in Congress!”
But the summer of 1986 brought a life-changing event. One night in August, he came home from work well past midnight, and he slept late the following morning. His mother was in Colorado visiting his sister, and his brother, who had a summer job with the Janesville parks department, had left early. Paul answered a frantic phone call from his father’s secretary. “Your dad’s got clients in here,” she said. “Where is he?” Paul walked into his parents’ bedroom and thought his father was sleeping. “I went to wake him up,” he told me, “and he was dead.”
“It was just a big punch in the gut,” Ryan said. “I concluded I’ve got to either sink or swim in life.” His mother went back to school, in Madison, and studied interior design; his grandmother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, moved into their home, and Ryan helped care for her. “I grew up really fast,” he said.
He took both schoolwork and extracurricular activities more seriously, he told me. In his junior year, he was elected class president, which made him prom king and gave him a seat representing the high school on Janesville’s school board, his first political position. He played soccer and was on the ski team. He joined nearly every school club: Latin Club, History Club, the Letterman’s Club, for varsity athletes, and the International Geographic Society, which was open to students who received an A in geography, and which met monthly to learn about a different country. At the end of his senior year, he was elected Biggest Brown-Noser. (“At least I didn’t have a mullet,” he said.)
His father’s death also provoked the kind of existential soul-searching that most kids don’t undertake until college. “I was, like, ‘What is the meaning?’ ” he said. “I just did lots of reading, lots of introspection. I read everything I could get my hands on.” Like many conservatives, he claims to have been profoundly affected by Ayn Rand. After reading “Atlas Shrugged,” he told me, “I said, ‘Wow, I’ve got to check out this economics thing.’ What I liked about her novels was their devastating indictment of the fatal conceit of socialism, of too much government.” He dived into Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman.
In a 2005 speech to a group of Rand devotees called the Atlas Society, Ryan said that Rand was required reading for his office staff and interns. “The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand,” he told the group. “The fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.” To me he was careful to point out that he rejects Rand’s atheism.
In 1988, Ryan went to Miami University, in Ohio, where he got to know an economics professor named William R. Hart, a fierce and outspoken libertarian in a faculty dominated by liberals. The two quickly discovered their shared fascination with Rand and Hayek. Ryan got his first introduction to movement conservatism when Hart handed him an issue of National Review. “Take this magazine—I think you’ll like it,” he said.
In 1991, Hart recommended Ryan for an internship in the office of Senator Bob Kasten, a Wisconsin Republican. Two years later, Ryan went to work as a speechwriter and policy analyst for Jack Kemp, who led Empower America, an organization then in the vanguard of making policy for supply-side conservatives who were pushing Republicans rightward in their views on taxes and the size of government. “Jack Kemp is what sucked me into public policy, public service, and politics,” Ryan said. “He called it the battle of ideas, and I just really got into it.”
Hart told me, “He thought the world of Jack Kemp. I got the impression that Jack Kemp became something of a second father.”
In 1997, Mark Neumann, the congressman from Ryan’s district in Wisconsin, who was running for the Senate, called Ryan, who was just twenty-seven, and suggested that he run for the House seat. Neumann knew that the popular Ryan name couldn’t hurt. Ryan went back to Wisconsin, worked briefly for the family business as a “marketing consultant”—a bit of résumé padding that gave him his only private-sector experience—and decided to run. One ad showed him walking through a Janesville cemetery among the gravestones of his ancestors. He won the election, becoming the second-youngest member of the House, and he has been reëlected easily ever since.
Ryan’s first significant policy fight came in 2004. As President George W. Bush campaigned for a second term, largely emphasizing counter-terrorism and national-security policies, Ryan laid the groundwork for the Republican agenda should Bush be elected. For the first time, Ryan had the chance to pursue some of the more daring libertarian ideas that had captivated him. As a thirty-four-year-old representative, he set out to privatize Social Security.
For decades, policy wonks on the Republican fringes had talked about turning Social Security, the government safety-net program for retirees, into a system of private investment accounts. The architect of the movement was Peter Ferrara, a former Harvard Law School student, who, calling it “the craziest idea in the world,” sold it, in 1979, to the small-government fundamentalists at the Cato Institute. (Ferrara is now at the Heartland Institute, best known for its denial of climate change.) They evangelized on behalf of the idea for more than two decades, before pushing it into mainstream Republican politics. Bush was the first Republican Presidential nominee to embrace the idea, but it wasn’t a priority in his first term, which was dominated by the response to 9/11 and the war in Iraq.
Ryan and other conservative leaders, among them Senator John Sununu, of New Hampshire, wanted to be sure that Bush returned to the plan in 2005. Under Ryan’s initial version, American workers would be able to invest about half of their payroll taxes, which fund Social Security, in private accounts. As a plan to reduce government debt, it made no sense. It simply took money from one part of the budget and spent it on private accounts, at a cost of two trillion dollars in transition expenses. But, as an ideological statement about the proper relationship between individuals and the federal government, Ryan’s plan was clear.
The release of the Social Security proposal was a turning point in Ryan’s career. Bush could have chosen to push a bipartisan idea, such as immigration reform, as the first domestic proposal of his second term. But, during the 2004 campaign, Ryan, with such allies as Kemp and Ferrara, kept up pressure from the right to force the White House to make a decision on Social Security. Many Republicans were still wary. Two weeks after Bush’s Inauguration, Ryan gave a speech at Cato asserting that Social Security was no longer the third rail of American politics. He toured his district with a PowerPoint presentation and invited news crews to document how Republicans could challenge Democrats on a sacrosanct policy issue and live to tell about it.
Conservative editorialists and activists cheered him on. “What Ryan and Sununu have proposed is historic,” Newt Gingrich wrote in an op-ed piece. “They have fashioned a plan that makes the idea of a personal-account option for Social Security not only politically viable but, indeed, politically irresistible.” Jack Kemp lauded his former aide: “It will be proven the most efficacious of all the reforms.” For the first time, Ryan enjoyed a round of worshipful media coverage. “THAT HAIR, THOSE EYES, THAT PLAN,” proclaimed the headline of a long home-state magazine profile in 2005.
But Ryan’s assurances proved to be wildly optimistic. Bush, urged by Karl Rove to keep his distance from Ryan’s plan, released a far more cautious proposal, with smaller accounts and less expensive transition costs. He spent months on a national tour promoting it, as Ryan had in Wisconsin. Democrats savaged the plan. Bush’s poll numbers sank, and the plan was effectively dead by the fall. The following year, the Republicans lost thirty House seats and the Democrats took over Congress. Other factors contributed to Bush’s failures in 2005 and 2006—Hurricane Katrina, escalating violence in Iraq—but his push for a version of the Ryan Social Security plan marked the start of the decline. Bush, in his memoir, writes that he regretted pursuing the issue when he did.
What some might interpret as the failure of an unpopular idea Ryan insisted was mostly a communications problem. “The Administration did a bad job of selling it,” he told me. Bush had campaigned on national-security issues, only to pitch Social Security reform after reëlection. “And . . . thud,” Ryan said. “You’ve got to prepare the country for these things. You can’t just spring it on them after you win.” The lesson: “Don’t let the engineers run the marketing department.”
Although the ranks of House Republicans were thinner after the 2006 elections, Ryan was sent back to Washington and won the top Republican spot on the Budget Committee. Now he had a large staff of economists working for him and access to the resources of the Congressional Budget Office, which could provide detailed analyses of his proposals. Once again, he set about testing the bounds of conservative ideology within the Party. It was his job to draft an alternative to the new Democratic majority’s budget. Even for the smaller, more conservative G.O.P. caucus of 2007, Ryan’s draft was so extreme that forty out of two hundred and two Republicans voted against it.
He returned the following year with something more polished and more ambitious. In May, 2008, working with two other young Republicans, Kevin McCarthy, of California, and Eric Cantor, of Virginia, who had watched the immolation of the congressional wing of their party during the Bush years, Ryan remade his budget into something he called the Roadmap for America’s Future. Rather than just build support inside Congress, he promoted the Roadmap through the rich network of conservative media and think tanks that helped influence Republican members. “I thought fiscal policy was on the wrong path,” he told me.
Ryan had witnessed three periods when conservatism was ascendant: during the Reagan revolution of the nineteen-eighties; after the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress; and after Bush’s election in 2000. Notably, the federal government’s size and responsibilities grew through all three political epochs. Ryan’s Roadmap soon came to define a fourth conservative surge. Unlike the 1994 Contract with America, which in substance was not nearly as ideological as people thought, and unlike Bush’s compassionate conservatism, which was sold as a rejection of anti-government philosophy, the Roadmap was a comprehensive plan to reduce the welfare state and radically curtail the government’s role in protecting citizens from life’s misfortunes.
Ryan recommended ending Medicare, the government health-insurance program for retirees, and replacing it with a system of direct payments to seniors, who could then buy private insurance. (The change would not affect current beneficiaries or the next decade of new ones.) He proposed ending Medicaid, the health-care program for the poor, and replacing it with a lump sum for states to use as they saw fit. Ryan also called for an end to the special tax break given to employers who provide insurance; instead, that money would pay for twenty-five-hundred-dollar credits for uninsured taxpayers to buy their own plans. As for Social Security, Ryan modestly scaled back his original proposal by reducing the amount invested in private accounts, from one-half to one-third of payroll taxes. Ryan’s Roadmap also promised to cut other government spending, though it didn’t specify how. Likewise, it promised to lower income-tax rates and simplify the tax code, but it didn’t detail which popular deductions—mortgage interest? retirement contributions?—it would eliminate.
Conservative intellectuals at National Review and the Heritage Foundation loved the Roadmap, and Ryan became an icon within the insular world of right-wing pundits. In Congress, things were different. In 2008, with midterm and Presidential elections looming, the Roadmap attracted just eight co-sponsors. Only the most astute observers of G.O.P. internal politics noticed what was happening. In a celebratory column about the Ryan plan in the Washington Post, titled “Fiscal Medicine Man,” Robert Novak, the late conservative writer, predicted, “After what is expected to be another bad G.O.P. defeat in the 2008 congressional elections, Ryan, McCarthy, and Cantor could constitute the party’s new House leadership.”
By early 2009, when I first met Ryan in his office, he was caught between the demands of the Republican leaders, who wanted nothing to do with his Roadmap, and his own belief that the Party had to offer a sweeping alternative vision to Obama’s. Ryan soon had an unlikely ally, in Obama himself. Throughout that year, the Administration struggled to defend its ambitious agenda, in part because there was no Republican alternative for the President to attack. Ryan, deferring to the Party leadership, didn’t aggressively push his plan again. But in late January of 2010, a week after the victory of the Republican Scott Brown in the contest for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts—the first election fuelled by the new Tea Party movement—Ryan offered the Roadmap as an alternative to Obama’s budget.
He presented it not as a dry policy plan, with just numbers and actuarial tables, but as a manifesto that drew on the canon of Western political philosophy as interpreted by conservative intellectuals. The document’s introduction referred to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, Hayek, Friedman, Adam Smith, Max Weber, Émile Durkheim, John Locke, Alexis de Tocqueville, Georges-Eugène Sorel, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Charles Murray, and Niall Ferguson. Ryan himself seemed intent on entering the canon. “Only by taking responsibility for oneself, to the greatest extent possible, can one ever be free,” he wrote, “and only a free person can make responsible choices—between right and wrong, saving and spending, giving or taking.”
Obama saw an opening. Invited to speak before the House Republicans at their retreat in Baltimore, on January 29th, he seemed to extend an olive branch to Ryan. “I think Paul, for example, the head of the Budget Committee, has looked at the budget and has made a serious proposal,” Obama said. “I’ve read it. I can tell you what’s in it. And there’s some ideas in there that I would agree with, but there’s some ideas that we should have a healthy debate about, because I don’t agree with them.” Afterward, Obama made a point of shaking Ryan’s hand and signing an autograph for his seven-year-old daughter, Liza. There was talk in Washington that the two young, wonky Midwesterners might be able to build a working relationship.
Three days later, the White House started a livelier debate with Ryan. In a press briefing, Peter Orszag, the budget director at the time, dismantled Ryan’s plan, point by point. Ryan’s proposal would turn Medicare “into a voucher program, so that individuals are on their own in the health-care market,” he said. Over time, the program wouldn’t keep pace with rising medical costs, so seniors would have to pay thousands of dollars more a year for health care. The Roadmap would revive Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security and “provide large tax benefits to upper-income households . . . while shifting the burden onto middle- and lower-income households. It is a dramatically different approach in which much more risk is loaded onto individuals.” Ryan, who had always had a good relationship with Orszag, later described the briefing as the moment when “the budget director took that olive branch and hit me in the face with it.”
But the confrontation enhanced Ryan’s credibility among conservatives. He became the face of the opposition, someone who could attack the President’s policies with facts and figures. Indeed, at the retreat, Obama had mischaracterized Ryan’s Medicare plan, and Ryan politely corrected him. The two men sparred again the next month, at a summit at Blair House, over the President’s health-care plan. The details of Ryan’s proposals and his critiques of Obama’s mattered less than the fact that he was taking on the President. House Speaker John Boehner and other Republican leaders started to feel pressure to take a position on the Ryan budget.
In July, Boehner distanced himself from the plan. But Ryan’s outside-in strategy, of building support among conservatives who would pressure Republican leaders to embrace his ideas, started to pay off. An editorial in the Weekly Standard stated that “Republicans should embrace Ryan’s Road Map.” Dick Armey, the former congressional leader, who had become a Tea Party organizer, demanded that Republicans have the “courage” to back Ryan’s plan. Boehner’s position insured that most Republican candidates didn’t listen to Armey’s advice, and in 2010 they campaigned against Obama’s alleged cuts to Medicare rather than for Ryan’s plan to end the program.
Still, after the election, with the Republican Party racing rightward, Ryan provided an intellectual blueprint: there were eighty-seven Republican freshmen who wanted to starve the government but had no clear idea how to do so. In December, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, Sarah Palin endorsed the Roadmap, and every potential Republican Presidential candidate knew that he or she, too, would have to take a position on it. In January, 2011, Ryan was chosen to give the official Republican response to the President’s State of the Union speech. “We hold to a couple of simple convictions,” he said. “Endless borrowing is not a strategy; spending cuts have to come first.”
During the next four months, Ryan and McCarthy, the third-ranking Republican in the House, convened a series of listening sessions for their colleagues, placing special emphasis on the Republican freshmen. Wielding a PowerPoint presentation that included photographs of chaos in Greece, which was sliding into its debt crisis, the two led the new members of Congress through the perils of the government’s fiscal trajectory, and patiently explained how Ryan’s plan was both the only solution and a political winner. In April, after months of this education campaign, Ryan formally unveiled a third version of the Roadmap, renamed the Path to Prosperity.
After the listening sessions, Ryan had removed some of the most controversial ideas, including the manifesto-like introduction, and even the Social Security privatization plan. The credit for taxpayers to buy health insurance was scrapped as well, but Ryan added a new plank: to repeal Obama’s health-care law and to effectively cut Medicaid by a third. (Under the plan, Medicaid would no longer keep up with rising medical costs.) Ryan conceded that he couldn’t get his colleagues to go along with everything in the old plan. “I had to pass a bill—I had to get two hundred and eighteen people,” he told me. His original Roadmap “was just me, unplugged,” he said. “But when you’re writing a budget you’re representing an entire conference, and so you have to get consensus.”
Conservative opinion-writers again celebrated his bravery. But there was one note of caution. The ornery Charles Krauthammer doubted that Ryan’s ideas could survive a Democratic onslaught in the 2012 campaign. “House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan has just released a recklessly bold, 73-page, 10-year budget plan,” he wrote. “At 37 footnotes, it might be the most annotated suicide note in history.”
In mid-April of 2011, in a speech at George Washington University, Obama once again decided to make an example of Ryan. Republicans were finally about to vote on the Path to Prosperity, and the President was eager to offer his opinion. Obama, for nearly the first time in his Presidency, emphasized the ideological divide between the two parties rather than offering bromides about what they shared. The White House invited Ryan to the speech and reserved a V.I.P. seat for him. Obama had personally called Ryan after Republicans won the majority in the House the previous November, and Ryan thought the two might have a rapport. They both liked sports and, because Ryan’s district runs along the Illinois border close to Chicago, knew many of the same people. “He’s a cerebral guy who likes policy, and he’s from my part of the country,” Ryan said. “At the beginning, I did have some hope.”
Ryan sat in the front row as the President shredded his plan. “I believe it paints a vision of our future that’s deeply pessimistic,” Obama said. “There’s nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. And I don’t think there’s anything courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don’t have any clout on Capitol Hill.”
Ryan seemed genuinely shocked. During a radio interview later in the day, he complained that Obama had called him “un-American,” and he objected to the charge that he was “pitting children with autism or Down syndrome against millionaires and billionaires” and “ending America as we know it.” Ryan told me, “I was expecting some counteroffer of some kind. What we got was the gauntlet of demagoguery.”
Two days after the speech, despite some desperate appeals by Republican pollsters, Ryan’s plan passed the House of Representatives, 235 to 193. Only four Republicans voted against it. Ryan told me that the class of Republicans elected in 2010 was transformational. “Usually, you get local career politicians who want to be national career politicians,” he said. “They’re more cautious. They’re more risk-averse. They’re more focussed on just reëlection.” He went on, “This crop of people who came up are doctors and dentists and small-business people and roofers and D.A.s. They’re not here for careers—they’re here for causes.”
Whatever benefit the White House had seen in raising Ryan’s profile, his increasing power, and his credibility as the leading authority on conservative fiscal policy, soon made his imprimatur essential for any Republican trying to reach a compromise with Democrats. Ryan helped scuttle three deals on the budget. He had served on the Simpson-Bowles deficit commission but refused to endorse its final proposal, in December, 2010. When deficit negotiations moved from the failed commission to Congress, Ryan stuck with the extreme faction of the G.O.P. caucus, which withheld support from any of the leading bipartisan plans. In the summer of 2011, when a group of Democratic and Republican senators, known as the Gang of Six, produced their own agreement, Ryan’s detailed criticism helped sink it. And, also that summer, during high-level talks between the White House and Republican leaders, Cantor and Ryan reportedly pressured Boehner to reject a potential deal with President Obama.
Ryan had aligned himself with Cantor and the self-proclaimed Young Guns, who made life miserable for Boehner, their nominal leader. They were the most enthusiastic supporters of the Ryan plan, while Boehner had publicly criticized it. Cantor’s aides quietly promoted stories about Boehner’s alleged squishiness on issues dear to conservatives, and encouraged Capitol Hill newspapers to consider the idea that Cantor would one day replace Boehner. As the Republican negotiations with the White House fizzled in the summer of 2011, Barry Jackson, Boehner’s chief of staff and a veteran of the Bush White House and Republican politics, blamed not just Cantor, who in media accounts of the failed deal often plays the role of villain, but Ryan as well.
“That’s what Cantor and Ryan want,” Jackson told a group of Republican congressmen, according to Robert Draper’s recent book, “Do Not Ask What Good We Do.” “They see a world where it’s Mitch McConnell”—as Senate Majority Leader—“Speaker Cantor, a Republican President, and then Paul Ryan can do whatever he wants to do. It’s not about this year. It’s about getting us to 2012, defeating the President, and Boehner being disgraced.”
One afternoon in mid-July, John Beckord, a Ryan supporter and the head of Forward Janesville, a pro-business economic-development group, took me on a tour of Ryan’s home town. As the years went by, the successful small businesses of the old Irish Mafia came to be overshadowed by one employer, General Motors; at its peak, in 1978, the automaker employed seventy-one hundred people and later produced more than a thousand sport-utility vehicles a day. Janesville has often served as a backdrop for Presidents and Presidential candidates. During a campaign stop there in 2008, Obama said, “The promise of Janesville has been the promise of America.” Later that year, the plant announced that it would close, causing the loss of some five thousand jobs in the area. Mitt Romney gave his standard stump speech in Janesville recently, with Ryan at his side.
Beckord drove along the perimeter of the abandoned plant, which stretched across more than two hundred acres. He pointed out a wide plain of asphalt, now sprouting weeds, that had once served as a parking lot for thousands of cars. Through 2007, Ryan regularly requested government money for special projects back home. Earmarks grew out of control during the Bush years, but most of what Ryan asked for, and got, was defensible: four hundred thousand dollars for a water-treatment plant; three hundred thousand for a technical college where G.M. workers could be retrained; seven hundred and thirty-five thousand for Janesville’s bus system; and $3.3 million for highway projects throughout Wisconsin. In 2008, however, Ryan vowed not to request earmarks anymore; he later helped push through an outright ban. I asked Beckord whether Ryan’s libertarianism ever clashed with the needs of his constituents. He hesitated, then said, finally, “I suppose there could have been a full-court press to just cobble together as much federal money as possible on our behalf to make it irresistible for G.M. to keep this plant open.”
When we got beyond the auto plant, Beckord pointed out some of the promising initiatives in town. “We’re finding a new identity,” he said. Since the plant closed, Janesville, which sits almost at the center of a ring of major cities, including Milwaukee, Chicago, St. Louis, Des Moines, and Minneapolis, has partly reinvented itself as a distribution hub for major companies. “They don’t make anything here,” Beckord explained. “But they distribute their products from here.” We passed a John Deere facility where hundreds of lawn tractors and mowers were stacked on pallets. Janesville is a major distribution center for John Deere lawn-care products. Several other national companies, including Grainger, which sells various industrial products, and LeMans, which sells parts for motocross and snowmobiling equipment, use Janesville for the same purpose.
As Janesville increasingly becomes a base for the business of distribution logistics, its single most pressing economic concern is good roads. Beckord pointed toward Interstate 90, which runs southeast a hundred miles to Chicago. “From an economic-vitality and economic-development perspective, transportation infrastructure is huge,” he said. Next year, I-90 around Janesville will begin expansion from four lanes to eight. The project, the top issue for the local business community since the G.M. plant closed, will be financed as part of a billion-dollar federal and state highway project. “Paul has been as helpful as he can be to encourage that development,” Beckord said. “But, as you know, he also has a philosophical disconnect with the idea of earmarks.”
We passed a warehouse-like building under construction where several men in hard hats were at work. Beckord explained that it would soon house the Janesville Innovation Center, providing entrepreneurs with commercial space in which to launch their ideas. The money came from a $1.2-million government grant through the Economic Development Administration, one of Obama’s major stimulus programs.
There was one more success story that Beckord wanted to share. A few years ago, he had a melanoma that was treated with a radioactive isotope; this isotope is administered to fifty-five thousand patients a day but has a half-life of sixty-six hours after manufacture, so it must be delivered quickly. The isotope, known as a medical tracer, is made outside the United States by a complicated process requiring highly enriched uranium from nuclear reactors. The government offered twenty-five-million-dollar matching grants to companies that could devise a way to produce the material domestically, without using enriched uranium. “Two of the four companies that won that competition, incredibly, are going to build plants in our county, and one of them is going to be in Janesville,” Beckord said. In May, the federal government announced that it would contribute more than ten million dollars to the new facility, which could employ some hundred and fifty people.
The current Presidential campaign centers on the debate about the government’s role in the economy. Ryan, by forcing Republicans to embrace his budget plan, has helped shape this debate. Obama, on July 13th, told a crowd in Virginia, “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” He added, “When we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.”
To Ryan, Obama’s words were anathema. In a conversation three days later with James Pethokoukis, a conservative blogger for the American Enterprise Institute, he had harsh criticisms for the President. “His comments seem to derive from a naïve vision,” Ryan said, that is based on “an idea that the nucleus of society and the economy is government, not the people.” Obama’s “big-government spending programs fail to restore jobs and growth,” he said, and amount to “a statist attack on free communities.”
When I pointed out to Ryan that government spending programs were at the heart of his home town’s recovery, he didn’t disagree. But he insisted that he has been misunderstood. “Obama is trying to paint us as a caricature,” he said. “As if we’re some bizarre individualists who are hardcore libertarians. It’s a false dichotomy and intellectually lazy.” He added, “Of course we believe in government. We think government should do what it does really well, but that it has limits, and obviously within those limits are things like infrastructure, interstate highways, and airports.” But independent assessments make clear that Ryan’s budget plan, in order to achieve its goals, would drastically reduce the parts of the budget that fund exactly the kinds of projects and research now helping Janesville.
As in 2009, Republicans are divided between those who think they can win by pointing out Obama’s failures and those who want to run on a Ryan-like set of ideas. Romney seems to want to be in the first camp, but during the primaries he championed the ideas in Ryan’s budget. Ryan is frequently talked about as a future leader of the House Republicans and even as a long shot to be Romney’s running mate. He surely would take either job, but he seems better suited to continuing what he’s been doing since 2008: remaking the Republican Party in his image. You can’t “run on vague platitudes and generalities,” he told me earlier this month. He was speaking about Bush in 2004 and Obama four years ago. But he clearly believes that the same holds true for Romney in November.
“He’s already endorsed these things,” Ryan said. “I want a full-throated defense for an alternative agenda that fixes the country’s problems. I want to show the country that we have a solution to get us out of the ditch we’re in, and to be proud about it.”
Ryan seemed unconcerned that pushing his policy agenda on Romney might damage the candidate. “I think life is short,” Ryan said at the end of our final conversation. “You’d better take advantage of it while you have it.” ♦