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."
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.
"The political people were telling me, 'Don't you dare introduce this. That's bad politics. It's political suicide,'" Ryan recalls of the critics scared off by the sweep of his vision.
Ryan has resisted the idea that the minority party should lay low and wait for its moment, and now the wonkish behavior is starting to pay off.
Fellow Wisconsin Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, who was first elected to Congress in 1979 when Ryan was 9 years old, says Paul Ryan is a fiscal Paul Revere trying to warn the country that more hard times are coming.
"Paul recognizes that we are headed for a fiscal train wreck unless we have a rapid change of course," Sensenbrenner told me. "Ryan is the guy that is standing beside the tracks waving his hands saying, 'Put the brakes on!'"
Being the man with the plans in the GOP has also made Ryan a target. President Obama called his roadmap "a serious proposal," making Ryan the White House GOP foil. Soon administration officials attacked Ryan's ideas in congressional hearings: White House Budget Director Peter Orszag claimed the roadmap addresses the nation's long-term fiscal problems but with a "dramatically different approach in which more risk is unloaded onto individuals" rather than the government.
But Ryan fought back: He directly challenged the president at February's bipartisan healthcare summit, peppering Obama for several minutes with a statistic-laden analysis of why the Democrats' agenda is a dangerous, deficit-exploding idea.
Yet many Republicans have been lukewarm to Ryan's roadmap-which has just 12 cosponsors. That's probably because its deficit-reduction measures tamper with popular programs like Medicare and Social Security. "There are two kinds of people up here, be-ers and doers," Ryan says. "There are a lot of people who come to Congress from both parties who just want to be a congressman. Keeping the job is the ultimate goal."
To Ryan, the doers-the ones with the ideas-have to "take this place over."
Such a mindset is why Democrats are not Ryan's only targets. His plans are designed to force "adult conversations" that will wake up his own party too. He admits the old Republican majority didn't get it right, and he can pinpoint the moment when this realization hit him.
Ryan became energized after the 2004 elections when President George W. Bush promised ambitious entitlement- and tax-reform goals for his second term. "But I quickly watched that moment dissipate and slip away," Ryan recalls. "For one reason or another those things fell on deaf ears."
What bothered Ryan the most was the source of the defeats-the ideas died from inside his own party. This retreat from the right is when Ryan realized Republicans had a real problem on their hands.
"I call it the atrophy phase of the Republican Party," Ryan told me. "We all got caught up into micro-legislating . . . fine-tuning tax bills and things like that. We lost sight of the bigger picture and tinkered around the edges."
Today, Ryan thinks the right can find its way by learning from the left. "They're serious about their progressive ideology," Ryan explains. "They have the courage of their convictions. And if we are given the opportunity to lead again, we better have that courage, and we've got to be really clear to the American people what those convictions are."
Ryan's roadmap strives to do just that-provide a stark alternative to what Democrats have proposed. And he's looking outside Congress for support-believing it will take two election cycles to bring in enough limited-government conservatives to realign the political system. "We need to recruit people who are not going to go wobbly when it gets tough," Ryan said. "I'm focused on good ideas and on getting reinforcements here as quickly as possible."
Ryan sees hope in a Tea Party movement that shows the people are ahead of the politicians when it comes to questioning increased federal spending in the face of crippling debt. But Ryan sees even greater promise in his own Wisconsin congressional district: a left-leaning place where voters went for Dukakis, Clinton, Gore, and Obama. Ryan ran for reelection in 2008 using an early version of the roadmap. The district's residents did not blink, giving Ryan 64 percent of the vote. And that with Obama winning his district by about 5 percent.
"So it is clear to me that people are ready to be talked to like adults," Ryan told me. "They are ready to have these ideas presented to them, and they want to choose the path of American exceptionalism, not managed decline."
Ryan's willingness to stick his neck out over his philosophies can be traced to the tough life lessons he learned as a 16-year-old when he discovered his father dead from a heart attack in the family's home. He had to tell his mother and three siblings, who were out of town. "That taught me self-sufficiency," said Ryan, who afterwards began focusing more on academics and sports. "That taught me that when bad things happen, you can either sink or swim."
Growing up faster than most is one of the reasons he managed to get elected to Congress in his twenties. It is also why many of his colleagues think Ryan, whose thick dark hair holds little gray, can name his own political ceiling.
"He probably won't like me telling you this, but I really believe that he should seriously look at being a presidential candidate," Rep. Devin Nunes, a California Republican, told me. "I think he's our best guy out there right now because of the substance. Ryan has separated himself from the rest of the pack because he actually has these solutions."
But Ryan, raised a devout Roman Catholic, said being a good legislator is the third priority in his life.
"I don't want to have a career that comes at the expense of being a good dad and a good husband," he explains. He returns to his Janesville, Wis., home every weekend that Congress is in session. He worries what a higher office and all its travel demands would do to his young family.
"I don't want to be a lifer here, absolutely not. No way. I am young enough to have two careers. What this second one will be? I have no idea."
Soon after describing his love of the outdoors and how he shot two deer this season with his 8-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, Ryan is back discussing America, limited government, and the political class.
One gets the sense that he could debate big, bold pieces of legislation all night. In fact, on this evening he practically did-just not with me. Our interview ended as Ryan was running late for a dinner with Niall Ferguson, a Harvard economic historian and author of The Ascent of Money: The Financial History of the World.
Ryan hoped to have a "light" dinner discussion with Ferguson about debt and how great empires implode on themselves.
This after a day that began early with Ryan leading a dozen bipartisan House members in an intense video workout regime called P90X. It was also the day that Ryan attended the first meeting of the Obama debt reduction panel, of which he is a member.
Still, Ryan thinks picking the brain of an Ivy League professor is the perfect way to end a long day. "Any economist or historian I can learn from, I try to get a hold of," he said before heading out the door. "That is literally one of the coolest things about this job."