This article is the fourth in a series called White House Wednesday, by the staff of The World and Everything in It, looking at potential 2016 candidates for president. Earlier installments profiled Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Vice President Joe Biden, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., is regarded by many as the chief financial officer of the Republican Party. He became chairman of the House Budget Committee in 2011, and has written the chamber’s budget proposals each year since then. The congressman calls his fiscal plan the Path to Prosperity, but it’s more commonly known in Washington simply as “The Ryan Budget.”
Each year, he gets it through the Republican-controlled House, then it lands in the Democrat-controlled Senate and dies. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has called the Ryan budget extreme, skewed, and “anything but balanced.”
Ryan has become the voice of fiscal conservatism in recent years. He has never been afraid to tackle big problems, even politically hazardous ones like Social Security and Medicare.
“Leaders are supposed to fix problems. We have a 99.4 trillion dollar unfunded liability. Our government is making promises to our citizens that it has no way of accounting for them,” Ryan told then-Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner in 2012. Geithner acknowledged the government’s major entitlements were on a path toward insolvency.
Ryan even grilled President Barack Obama on his healthcare plan. Speaking directly to the president at a bipartisan summit in 2010, he questioned the numbers used to sell Obamacare to the American public.
“The Senate Budget Committee chairman said that this is a Ponzi scheme that would make Bernie Madoff proud,” Ryan said. “We don’t think the government should be in control of all of this. We want people to be in control. And if you think they want a government takeover of healthcare, I would respectfully submit you’re not listening to them.”
Ryan’s mastery of the numbers caught Mitt Romney’s attention in 2012. The GOP’s presidential nominee felt the congressman would be the best possible partner to help him turn the economy around. Standing in a Naval shipyard in Norfolk, Va., Romney announced Ryan as his running mate.
Ryan added working-class appeal to the Romney ticket. The 44-year-old father of three grew up in the blue-collar town of Janesville, Wisc.
He was a high-school athlete, president of the junior class, and even prom king. But at age 16, his world was turned upside down when he discovered his father lifeless in bed, dead of a heart attack at age 55.
“My dad, a small town lawyer, was also named Paul. Until we lost him when I was 16, he was a gentle presence in my life. I like to think he’d be proud of me and my sister and brothers,” Ryan said.
Ryan earned a degree in economics and political science from Miami University in Ohio and entered politics a short time later. He worked as an aid for then-Sen. Bob Kasten and former congressman Jack Kemp. Then, at just 28 years old, Ryan was elected to Congress. Many people consider the now-eight-term congressman one to watch for the 2016 election, especially since he is already battle-tested in a presidential campaign. He’s not given any indication about whether he will run, though. If he has made a decision, he’s playing it close to the vest.
Ryan’s name already appeared on presidential bumper stickers next to Romney’s, giving him credibility and name recognition. Given his role in the House, his knowledge of the economy is a key strength.
“There’s certainly a slot open for the best pole position in the Republican primary race, which is the mainstream, establishment conservative,” said Kyle Kondik at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “Paul Ryan is somebody who is well-liked enough by the people in the party that I think he would certainly have access to the establishment slot.”
Kondik also pointed out Ryan still has fans within the tea party, so he might be one candidate who could unite the conservative and the establishment wings of the GOP.
Ryan’s critics say he is too much of a policy wonk, meaning he’s great with numbers, but not as gifted on the campaign trail. And his stances on those hazardous political issues could work against him. Democrats have had a field day over the past few years tearing apart the Ryan budget, calling it heartless and draconian. One political ad criticizing Ryan’s Medicare proposals shows him pushing an elderly woman in a wheelchair off a cliff.
Another built-in challenge for Ryan is that he’s a congressman, not a senator or governor. He has more credibility than most members of Congress because he’s authored the House budget for several years and received the vice-presidential nomination. But Kondik said House members usually do not receive presidential nominations.
“Getting elected statewide shows maybe a little more electoral viability than just getting elected from a smaller house district,” Kondik said. “It’s not common at all in American history for a member of the House to get nominated.”
Listen to Nick Eicher and Kent Covington discuss Paul Ryan’s presidential prospects on The World and Everything in It: