Cover Story
Luke Sharrett for WORLD

The quiet weapon

Campaign 2010 | Meet a man who plans to balance the federal budget without raising taxes and put the U.S. economy on sure footing without bailouts, overhauls, or takeovers: Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan

Issue: "GOP idea man," May 22, 2010

WASHINGTON-Paul Ryan likes to hunt. The strategy involved in tracking his target, the need of going at it alone, the skill to take aim, and even the thrill of the kill are reasons why Ryan, who recently turned 40, goes hunting as often as he can. But he prefers walking into the woods without a gun.

"Rifle hunting is easy, but bow hunting is tough," claims Ryan, who stalks prey with his bow as often as he can, even making his own sausage from his kills.

The sport's allure to Ryan provides clues to why he is drawn to the part of his life that's not a hobby: being a lawmaker. This year Ryan, a six-term Republican congressman and senior member of two key committees, shot a quiver full of arrows at the nation's ongoing fiscal crisis by targeting healthcare, the tax code, trade policy, and entitlements in a substantive and daring proposal he calls the "Roadmap for America's Future."

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But Ryan wasn't finished. He then added his own budget proposal that actually erases the nation's long-term deficit and had The Washington Post calling the White House's official 2011 budget "only the second-most interesting budget proposal released" this year.

"I guess you can say that I make sausage literally and figuratively," Ryan joked to me, alluding to the common metaphor that compares bill-writing to the unappealing and often hidden process of making sausage, or bratwurst to use the term favored in Ryan's native Wisconsin.

In Washington, Ryan currently has in his crosshairs a White House and Congress he says are pursuing policies that will create a national culture of dependency and drain individuals of the will to make the most out of their lives. To fight that, he has come armed with something many complain is missing in the current breed of elected officials bearing the conservative banner: ideas.

Speaking at his Capitol Hill office that is decorated with pictures of his wife and three young children (and contains room for the cot that he sleeps in on most weeknights), Ryan often uses the phrases "American idea" and "serious jeopardy" in the same sentence.

"I'm not interested in being here to be an efficient tax collector for the welfare state, or for helping just run the bureaucratic trains a little more efficiently," he proclaims. "I want to fight for the American idea."

What is that American idea? To Ryan the nation is a place where its leaders, inspired by the founders, act on the belief that God-not government-creates rights. The practical consequences of that truth translate into equal opportunity in free-market democracy, something Ryan calls moral.

With a high-stakes battle of ideas raging in Washington over big- and small-government solutions, Ryan believes this is his moment. "This is everything I believe in, everything I've studied. It is what I am wired for."

Ryan calls this era of federal bailouts, takeovers, and overhauls "scary"-but he also has a hard time hiding his excitement. He says that he spies a silver lining in the Democrats' expensive ambitions: Voters are talking about the country's identity. "They just threw a bucket of cold water in the face of every voter," Ryan said of the Democrats. "They woke us up out of our sleepwalk."

The fact that Ryan now sees himself at the center of the congressional debate over government's role is something that surprises him. While a student at Miami University in Ohio, Ryan thought he'd become an economist. He read the likes of Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand and envisioned a life of theories. But he eventually learned that public policy is the arena where ideas really live or die. "That is what built this country-good ideas," he says.

Post-graduation stints as a speechwriter for Jack Kemp, at a conservative think tank, and as legislative director for Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas led to Ryan's successful run for an open House seat in 1998. He was just 28.

After almost a decade of near anonymity in Congress, Ryan's 2007 ascension as the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee gave him the staff resources and the clout to let out his inner economist. He now also is senior member of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee. From those perches he has crafted a roadmap to privatize Medicare and Medicaid, provide vouchers for many federal programs, replace employee-sponsored health insurance plans with individual tax credits, and impose tough controls on federal spending.

The Congressional Budget Office, the nonpartisan number crunchers, determined that Ryan's roadmap delivered on its promises of balanced budgets and smaller deficits (unlike its projections for Obamacare). Under current policies, the CBO concludes that the nation in 2080 will devote 34 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) to government spending; under Ryan's plan, the CBO predicts that federal spending in 2080 would fall to less than 14 percent of the GDP while the government would enjoy a 5 percent annual surplus. And all without raising taxes. In fact, Ryan proposes a flat tax of two rates: 10 percent and 25 percent.

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