Cover Story

The quiet weapon

"The quiet weapon" Continued...

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

"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."

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