The making of Paul Ryan
One good way to understand how 42-year-old Paul Ryan vaulted over a generation of politicians into the top tier of national Republican politics is to dive into some numbers.
190 times. That's how often the Wisconsin lawmaker's name appeared in the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal between Election Day 2008--when a Republican rout at the polls left the conservative intelligentsia urgently looking for a new star--and the day this month when Mitt Romney tapped Ryan his running mate.
Another revealing number: Ryan and his plans for overhauling the federal budget drew at least 72 mentions in the conservative Weekly Standard magazine, according to a POLITICO count. There were at least as many references in the equally influential National Review.
These billings, in turn, helped Ryan drive an even bigger number: 1,050 is how many times Ryan and the Ryan budget were talked up on Fox News.
There are legions of smart and ambitious politicians who could never dream of this kind of publicity who can testify that numbers like this do not just happen by accident.
In Ryan's case, say people who have worked closely with him, they are the result of a years-long effort to cultivate relationships with a small but influential corps of commentators, policy intellectuals, and impresarios of the conservative movement.
Ryan invites these people to off-the-record dinner briefings to talk about ideas and his policy proposals. He calls them to say how much he liked their articles. He attends their going-away parties and hires young people from their staffs. Above all, he has made clear that he takes these people seriously and wants to be taken seriously by them.
And these Washington and New York influentials--including writers Bill Kristol and Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard, and Rich Lowry of National Review, and policy provocateurs like Bill Bennett and Pete Wehner--have repaid the favor. In the process they have helped Ryan illuminate a path to power much different than the traditional strategy of bill-passing, logrolling, and above all loyal time-serving that historically was the way to win influence on Capitol Hill.
"Ryan developed a fan base outside of Congress," explained conservative editor Yuval Levin. "He seems to be taken seriously by people who other members take seriously."
"Public policy and intellectual types are susceptible to flattery and the bar is not particularly high," quipped Ramesh Ponnuru, a National Review writer who knows and admires Ryan.
The GOP, long a royalist party that rewards those who wait their turn, has been upended in recent years by powerful ideological and technological forces, and nobody better symbolizes the new ways in which power is obtained than Ryan.
His rise represents the most significant triumph yet of what could be called the "outside-in" approach to navigating Washington. Because of the attention and praise given to his ideas by external validators like the Wall Street Journal--whose editorial page editor Paul Gigot is a Ryan fan and fellow Wisconsin native--Ryan not only elbowed his way into the top tier of GOP politics, but made his policy vision the centerpiece of the House GOP agenda.
If Ryan were the typical House Budget Committee Chairman, by contrast, he might win quiet praise on Capitol Hill for being collegial or serious-minded, but there would be scant chance that he would have been urged to run for president--as many conservative writers urged Ryan to run this year--or been selected as vice presidential nominee. There was no fever of excitement for Republican Jim Nussle or Iowa, or Democrat John Spratt of South Carolina, two politicians who in recent years preceded Ryan as chairman of the budget panel.
What Ryan had was a small group of backers who happened to have big megaphones. Their vigorous promotion of Ryan's career and his controversial ideas for overhauling entitlement programs like Medicare and scaling back domestic spending gradually allowed him to recruit a much bigger group of backers.
The congressman's staff sometimes refers to these policy thinkers and writers as "the headwaters."
A former Ryan aide who helped build the office into what was effectively a think-tank said that the congressman, first elected at age 28 in 1998 after a tenure as a congressional staffer, was early to appreciate the connection between making conservative elites feel included and advancing his ideas.
"He understood that the way to influence things was to get to the headwaters of intellectual thought on the right, then let the ideas trickle down," said the former staffer. "Then other writers and conservatives would pick that stuff up and take it as more accepted ideology than just legislation or a think-tank paper."
Ryan's success with this strategy, however, needed a very specific set of circumstances to be effective. That came on Election Day 2008, a terrible day for Republicans generally but, in retrospect, a good day for Ryan to turn what previously had been a long, steady jog to power into something more like a sprint. Racked by scandal and drifting from its small-government roots, the party desperate for new ideas and fresh faces. "It's easier to become a party of ideas when you're a party of out of power," noted Kristol. "Ryan wouldn't be where he is today without the blowout of 2006."
In an interview with POLITICO the day after Barack Obama's landslide, Ryan denounced the record of big spending and deficits that had soiled the Republican brand while they were in the majority and promised a new style: "No more old bulls, no more old boy's network, no more just bringing home the bacon to get reelected."
Ryan made aggressive, creative use of the tools that came when he took the gavel of the House Budget Committee in 2011. The committee staff traditionally had been quiet outside budget season. Ryan turned it into a year-round policy and marketing shop, turning the budget from a document into a crusade. His first one - a more politically palatable version of a more controversial plan he had pushed from the minority - was "A Roadmap for America's Future." This year's was called, "The Path to Prosperity: A Blueprint for American Renewal."
At other times, this kind of promotion might have prompted more eye-rolling than respect from more senior lawmakers. In the spring of 2011, however, there was a dinner meeting at a Capitol Hill restaurant that made clear times had changed.
It was night before Ryan introduced his controversial budget plan--now a flashpoint in the presidential election--and he joined a group of conservatives at The Monocle for a for a toast of congratulations and strategy session about how best to sell the blueprint. The table included longtime Ryan associates such as his former boss at the think tank Empower America, William Bennett, Weekly Standard editor Kristol and Levin. But there was also an unexpected guest.
House Speaker John Boehner-- a generation older and raised in a very different school of politics than Ryan--told the group he knew many of them were close to the young congressman and that he wanted them to know that he was "with Paul" on a budget that had initially faced intense skepticism among GOP Old Bulls leery about making major changes to Medicare and Social Security.
"This was really a moment where you knew the Republican Party is going in a different direction," recalled Kristol.
Ryan had for many years been viewed in the conservative wonk crowd as a kindred spirit. But it was when he clashed with Obama in a high-profile argument about healthcare policy at a televised Blair House meeting in 2011 that he got admirers thinking of him in national terms, and possibly even as a presidential candidate.
Ponnuru, the National Review writer, cited a column by New York Times commentator David Brooks--another writer with whom Ryan has cultivated a relationship--after the 2008 election dividing conservatives into two camps: traditionalists and reformers.
"One of the needs that Ryan met was transcending that debate," said Ponnuru. "He showed that you could be a policy-oriented person without being a sell-out or a squish. You didn't have to choose."
Ryan critics, and they exist in both the House GOP and of course in liberal circles, contend that this is because Ryan's budget makes no hard choices on what deductions to eliminate and implies that deficits can be eliminated with continued tax cuts and without slicing the Pentagon budget.
But for much of the right, Ryan and his agenda represented something for dispirited conservatives to rally around - it gave them an oppositional framework with which to oppose Obama.
The Journal made clear early it was on board for the ride.
"Ryan for the Republicans," blared the editorial headline not long after Obama's 2008 victory.
"The 38-year-old Mr. Ryan cares about free markets and economic growth and can talk about those subjects in a way that makes sense without falling back on ideology, bromides or oversimplification," wrote the paper's editorialists. "He engages these subjects with a vigor that befits his age, and while he has been in Congress for nearly a decade, his is a fresh face on the national scene, one not associated with the bipartisan failures of Congress."
A couple years later, in April 2011, both the Weekly Standard and National Review put him on the cover at a critical moment. The Standard juxtaposed pictures of the House Budget Chair and the president, with a headline in between reading: "Ryan vs Obama." NR drew up an image of Ryan as FDR, replete with cigarette holder, featuring a "Ryan's New Deal" headline. Inside each magazine, a battery of respected think tankers and conservative journalists made the case for why Ryan's budget was not a radical document but just the remedy the country needed to revive economic growth and address long-term deficits.
The Ryan path to power--by using media and message to vault over seniority--has been trod by others to some extent. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Texas senator-in-waiting Ted Cruz, each a long-shot when they began running, will both say that one of the turning points for their campaigns were when they were featured on the cover of National Review. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) is another example of a politician who has found his way to relevance not by building relationships inside the Senate caucus but by developing a following on conservative talk radio and Fox News.
The common analogy used when it comes to Ryan has been his mentor Jack Kemp, the sunny supply-side congressman who emerged as a congressional entrepreneur at a similar moment of Republican ideological turmoil. Like Ryan, Kemp became a Republican star largely through the popularity of his growth-oriented proposals with conservative opinion-shapers, notably the Wall Street Journal's Robert Bartley and columnist Robert Novak. And also as with Kemp, Ryan confronted unease among more cautious members of the Republican caucus.
"The conservative movement always had as its doctrine that you had to bring the country to the Capitol," said former congressman Vin Weber, a Kemp ally. "[The late conservative activist] Paul Weyrich used to talk about need for outside groups to put pressure on members. The thought being that Washington culture is basically hostile to conservative values and in order to succeed you had to mobile forces outside of government. Paul comes out of that."
But he's emerged in a much different era than that of Kemp, a time when the establishment has withered and power has flowed away from party bosses to new media forces. He first began learning how to marshal these new power forces at the knees of mentors like Kemp and Bennett in the early '90s.
"He tells me he carried my books in one hand and my coffee in the other, which is embarrassing as hell," said Bennett, the bestselling "The Book of Virtues" author, and host of the nationally syndicated radio show, "Morning in America."
The young Ryan, building know-how and ambition, was poised and impressive enough that Bennett took him totally seriously when he called a few years later, in 1998, and asked: "Does this pass the laugh test? I'm going to run for Congress."
People who have been courted and spun by Ryan over the years said his "Wisconsin nice" and "disarmingly normal" demeanor helped him sell aggressive, even brazen ideas. It was all very intentional. "'Happy warrior" was used a lot around the office," another former aide said.
Ryan has known some of his key contacts in the conservative intelligentsia since he was a congressional staffer.
For example, he attended the 1997 going-away party for Lowry when the editor moved from Washington to New York to take over National Review. Ryan has stayed in touch ever since.
"He'll call with a heads-up about something he's floating or working on, explaining what he's up to," Lowry said. In conservative circles, he added, "He's always been 'Paul' - embedded in our world."
It wasn't merely mutual admiration, though. It was also access. Ryan furthered his relationships with the outside right by bringing them on the inside and linking them with other top congressional officials.
One of the most important moments was when Ryan brought in intellectual firepower to help make his case at the start of 2011, when he was pushing the GOP leadership to bring his budget to the floor.
Ryan and Cantor organized what attendees described as a free-wheeling session in Cantor's Capitol conference room in which a core group of the conservative thinkers made the case to other members of the leadership and senior staffers, some of them skeptics, that including the Medicare plan in the budget was worth the risk.
In addition to flattery and inclusion, Ryan also connects with the conservative wonks simply as a fellow intellectual.
"Paul spent years and year in his office at night reading and learning, while other people were going to cocktail parties," said his Wisconsin friend, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus. "He really proved that knowledge is power.
Ryan, for example, has been a dedicated reader of Levin's "National Affairs," a quarterly policy journal that is descended from Irving Kristol's "The Public Interest."
"A new issue will come out and Paul would email us about it," said the younger Kristol.
Levin said he was a Ryan admirer before they met, but they really hit it off after they got to know one another.
"I discovered that we were interested in some of the same theoretical questions: What kind of government we ought to have, what kind of country we ought to have," he explained.
Edwin Feulner, the Heritage Foundation president, used to get visits from Ryan; as the years went by, more and more often, he went to the Capitol and the two would lunch in the Members' Dining Room, or have coffee off the House floor.
Feulner said he was once vividly impressed by Ryan as he overheard a conversation the congressman had with Cardinal Timothy Dolan -- now the New York archbishop and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and formerly the archbishop of Milwaukee, "about the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, and how that related to the American principle of federalism."
Said Feulner: "He understands the importance of ideas as the central raw material of laws."
Ponnuru noted that he hears from Ryan about stories that have nothing to do with Ryan.
"He will argue with me about things I've written," said the National Review writer. "Most politicians will argue with you when you write about them. But he's willing to actually argue about public policy ideas."
Added Ponnuru: "Most of these guys on Capitol Hill are interested in fundraising and polling - and those not particularly things that Paul Ryan is interested in."
He is, by all appearances, more at home within the close-knit family of conservative thinkers.
Two of his press aides, Kate Matus and Stephen Spruiell, both came from National Review. When Matus got married to a Weekly Standard writer, Vic Matus, at a very Washington wedding - Georgetown University Chapel ceremony and Hay Adams reception - in 2004, Ryan was there.
And on the same day Ryan was tapped this month by Romney, he didn't just reach out to family and friends back in Wisconsin - he also gave a call to his old friend Levin.