Paul Ryan’s Hopeful Journey from Policy Savant to Political Sage

Paul Ryan already has his dream job. As chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, he’s sitting in a prime position to pursue his long-held goal: Passing tax and entitlement reform. Following John Boehner’s decision to retire from Congress many thought Ryan, the fresh-faced, articulate, policy architect, would be a natural candidate. But his answer was “no,” and when asked why he responded simply, “Because I don’t want to be Speaker.”

Instead, Ryan endorsed Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who Ryan called a “rare combination of principle, leadership, and effectiveness” that “make him the best choice for Speaker.” Not long after that McCarthy withdrew from the race citing an inability to unite a divided Congress. Once again the clamor for Ryan reached a crescendo, and once again Ryan politely declined.

“I’m a policy guy, so I think I can do the most good for the country at Ways and Means,” Ryan said following McCarthy’s announcement. “It’s the job I always wanted, and it allows me to focus on the issues that are really important for our future.”

Ryan is not just a policy “guy,” he’s a wonk of the highest degree. It’s a brand he begun developing in college, where he quickly became known for his fluency in economic policy.

“He was a Ph.D. student in freshman clothes,” his brother, Tobin Ryan, told the New York Times. “I recall him referring to Hayek. I was an economics major myself; I don’t think I was as enthusiastic.”

And it’s a label he honed while working on the staff of the late NFL-quarterback-turned-congressman Jack Kemp, one of the men responsible for President Reagan’s supply-side tax policy.

Throughout his career Ryan would keep coming back to Kemp, who grew into something of a second father, and his ideas. Specifically, Ryan praised “his belief in the possibilities of free people, in the power of free enterprise, and strong communities to overcome poverty and despair.” It’s a rounded perspective of which Ryan concluded, “We need that same optimism right now.”

After Newt Gingrich led the Republican Revolution in 1995, Ryan went back to Capitol Hill, sensing correctly that was the next big front in the battle of ideas. He found a spot on the staff of freshman representative Sam Brownback, who noticed Ryan’s talent and named him legislative director, an astounding position for a man who just celebrated his 25th birthday. When Brownback began focusing much of his time campaigning for the vacated seat of Sen. Bob Dole, Ryan was given even more duties, including heading up a policy group called the New Federalists, which looked at ways to reform and restructure entitlement programs.

Brownback recalls Ryan being “puritanical” in his philosophical devotion to economic principles. To Ryan there was always a good and a bad policy, and that necessarily trumped the decision over what was good and bad politics. That divide became especially evident when Ryan went toe-to-toe with his boss over ethanol subsidies, which were a political no-brainer in corn-rich Iowa.

“It’s all policy to him,” Brownback recalled to The Weekly Standard. “People don’t appreciate just how much of a policy guy Ryan is and how little of a politician he is.”

The focus on ideas is what animates Ryan and in many ways sets him apart from his contemporaries. In an era defined by zero-sum gamesmanship and policy purity, Ryan understands the need to win with data, not bombast.

“He’s much more of a number cruncher than my father was,” Kemp’s son Jimmy told the New York Times, “but I think one of the lessons he learned from Dad was to communicate with a smile, and there’s no need to attack opposing politicians on a personal level because the arguments should be about ideas.”

Fortunately, Ryan does not suffer from a shortage of ideas. Some of his most daring projects have been to author legislation to create private investment accounts for Social Security, to reform Medicare into a premium-support model that would encourage more competition between plans, to eliminate the tax preference for employer-sponsored health insurance and replace it with a tax credit, and to dramatically simplify the tax code into two brackets. If there was an ox to be gored or a third rail to be grabbed, you can be sure Ryan, undeterred, would be there to do it.

It’s not as though Ryan didn’t know that his policies were bold, some would say brash. It’s that he didn’t care. In 2006, after Democrats won a majority in the House of Representatives and Speaker Pelosi announced a five-day work week, Ryan went back to Janesville for deer hunting season and gave serious thought to leaving.

“After we got thumped by Pelosi in ’06, I was just sitting in my tree stand right after that election thinking about, you know, Why am I in Congress?,” Ryan told The Weekly Standard. “Is it really serving a purpose?”

Ultimately, ever the reluctant warrior, Ryan decided that he would stay, but made a promise to himself to do something meaningful. He settled on tackling the intractable entitlement crisis.

As soon as he got back to Washington Ryan reached out to John Boehner, then the outgoing House Majority Leader, to see about being named the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee.  Boehner’s relationship with Ryan actually stretched back more than a decade. While Ryan was in college at Miami University, which happened to sit in Boehner’s district, Ryan served as a volunteer on the campaign, putting up yard signs.

With the national debt spiraling out of control and perpetual deficits roiling markets, Boehner sensed that Ryan was just the man for the moment and worked to move him up the House Budget Committee food chain.

It was one thing to tout his audacious ideas, many of which he included in a document called the Roadmap for America’s Future, when he was just a precocious back-bencher on the House Budget Committee, but soon his plan caught on in the caucus. His rising-star status crystallized in February 2010, when President Obama, who was reeling after Scott Brown’s surprise victory in the New Hampshire special election threatened to prevent the passage of Obamacare, called for a “Health Care Summit” to discuss the policy.

Republicans tapped Ryan to present their case. It took him all of six minutes to thoroughly vivisect President Obama’s bill, a virtuosic performance that set the tone for Obamacare’s failure to win over the public and set Ryan on a course for leadership. Not long after, the Republican caucus voted, nearly unanimously, in support of Ryan’s Roadmap. The set of proposals, once deemed too risky to fully embrace, ultimately became the unifying platform for the ascendant Republican majority. 

“Usually, you get local career politicians who want to be national career politicians,” Ryan told The New Yorker. “They’re more cautious. They’re more risk-averse. They’re more focused on just reelection.” Instead, he went on, “[The 2010 class] 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.”

One of Ryan’s causes is the War on Poverty, which, like so much of what Ryan does, bears Jack Kemp’s fingerprints. The New York Times once described Kemp as “at home in the barrio or the ghetto, where he sought to share his entrepreneurial American Dream” and with a Rolodex filled with “Black and Latino leaders.” Ryan seems to be trodding the same path.

In 2003, he joined the Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage, which was led by Rep. John Lewis, who 40 years prior led the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one of the most important institutions in the struggle for civil rights. The pilgrimage took lawmakers to Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery, Alabama, to learn about the struggles of blacks in the south during the Jim Crow era.

Two years later the Milwaukee Magazine recalls another run-in with Rep. Lewis. “He’s a hero,” Ryan said, nodding Lewis’ way after a committee meeting. Later, he continued, “I have a sister-in-law who’s African American. My college sweetheart was black. I just experienced some ugly comments, some racist views from people who I thought were friends of mine.”

In an effort to move from fact-gathering to policy making, Ryan recently took a trip to Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church, where a group of reformed drug dealers, recovering addicts and at-risk youth are gathering to hear a pastor named Darryl Webster preach. Webster  runs a remarkably successful ministry that works with underachieving men to get clean, heal their marriages and find work. Ryan is here for the second time in as many years to learn how Webster does it.

“He has charged headfirst into the war on poverty without a helmet; zealously and clumsily fighting for a segment of the American public that the party hasn’t reached since the Depression-era shantytowns that lined the Hudson River were named after Herbert Hoover,” wrote McKay Coppins for Buzzfeed last year.

Ryan can show off the fresh scars of having opted for this particular fight. But he can also speak firsthand about how the federal poverty programs’ one-size-fits-all bureaucracies actually serve to entangle the people they are supposed to help. The answer, as Ryan laid out in a 73-page comprehensive anti-poverty agenda called Expanding Opportunity in America, is to stop the never-ending stream of welfare checks and devolve the anti-poverty mission and money to local churches, charities and service organization who actually know what people need to heal themselves.

His slavish devotion to identifying a problem, thoroughly dissecting it down to its root causes, and then laying out comprehensive solutions, regardless of the politics, is what makes Ryan a unique Member. He’s a problem solver, he’s a reformer, and he’s brave.

Is that enough to succeed as Speaker of the House? Maybe.

While everyone else struggled to understand how Ryan fit into the fractious politics of the Republican caucus, he aimed higher.

“I’ve spoken with many of you over the past few days, and I can sense the hunger in our conference to get to work,” Ryan said in a letter to his fellow members. “I know many of you want to show the country how to fix our tax code, how to rebuild our military, how to strengthen the safety net, and how to lift people out of poverty. I know you’re willing to work hard and get it done, and I think this moment is ripe for real reform.”

But like it or not, the politics are real, as are the divisions within the GOP. Ryan’s success then depends on how quickly he can transition from policy wonk to political healer. There’s no doubt it will be a near impossible task. Fortunately, Ryan has proven pretty darn good at coming up with solutions to issues that other members have deemed insolvable.