While some Republican vice presidential aspirants may be lacking in political star power, that’s not a problem for House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Not since former Republican House member and now Ohio governor John Kasich made the budget process seem more like a religious calling than a legislative chore has anyone come close to Ryan’s gift for dominating the national debate with his clarion conservative message.
Ryan has compelled Congress, the Obama administration, senior citizens advocacy groups, K Street lobbyists and others come to grips with hisbudget roadmaps. If the Republicans manage to win back the White House and the Senate in November, Ryan’s proposals likely will become the template for historic cuts in government spending, a massive rewrite of the federal tax code and the most profound changes to Medicare and Medicaid since their enactment during President Lyndon Johnson’s administration.
“The criticism we get is that we’re not offering a balanced approach,” Ryan said recently. “I would simply say if a balanced approach means never balancing the budget, that’s not the kind of balanced approach we want to have. A lot of folks who talk about having a balanced approach say just raise more tax rates but don’t deal with the structural drivers of our debt, don’t restructure the entitlement programs so that they can still fulfill their missions.”
While hardly a household name, Ryan has certainly gained substantially in national prominence, especially after he campaigned with Romney earlier this year in Ohio and other Rust Belt states. He generates more excitement than many of the other vice presidential wannabees – including Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and former Florida governor Jeb Bush.
“He’s very smart, he’s a very good speaker, and I think he has a good physical presence,” said John Zogby, a veteran Republican pollster, in sizing up Ryan’s prospects. “He’s young but he’s not too young. He’s also from what could be a swing state. He represents a conservative wing of the Republican party that seems to be acceptable to all the conservative wings of the party – the social conservatives, the Tea Party and the Libertarians."
An April CNN/ORC poll found that 43 percent of Americans surveyed had a favorable view of Ryan, second only to Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, with 44 percent. A Quinnipiac University national poll that same month showed that 23 percent of Americans thought that Ryan would be a good choice for vice president and 17 percent thought he would be a bad choice, while others had no opinion.
Yet Ryan’s widely heralded, and widely reviled, budget and entitlement reform proposals may be too extreme for many Americans, who share GOP concerns about the deficit but don’t want to completely scrap Medicare as we know it or slash federal spending on education and food stamps. Ryan’s budget calls for $5 trillion more in savings than President Obama’s plan over the coming decade without requiring wealthier Americans to pay more in taxes to bring down the deficit.
“The major concern of the Romney campaign with Ryan would be that Ryan’s budget plan would become the campaign’s focus instead of the overall shape of the economy,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. “There are obviously controversial aspects to the plan that the Obama campaign would jump on.”
Zogby agrees that Ryan is a “lightning rod” for Democratic and moderate critics, and that with Ryan on the ticket, Romney might end up having to devote an inordinate amount of time to defending his budget. “Both sides are going to run a very partisan campaign, and Paul Ryan is a brand onto himself,” Zogby said. “It’s a brand that means scaring the hell out of older people on Medicare, and draconian budget cuts.”
On the foreign policy side, Ryan has little experience, which may make him less than ideal as a running mate for Romney, who also has limited foreign policy experience. That might also be a problem in going head to head with Vice President Joe Biden in a debate this fall. Biden, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is considered an expert on foreign policy.
Ryan, 42, a graduate of Miami University of Ohio and an admirer of “objectivism,” the rational self-interest economic views of the late author Ayn Rand, has been one of his party’s most influential voices on economic policy since first winning election to the House in 1998. Ryan and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., were among the founding members of the Young Guns, a House Republican leadership program that was active in recruiting talented young conservatives to run for House seats. After the Republicans won back control of the House and Ryan was elevated to chairman of the Budget Committee, he introduced a plan, called "The Path to Prosperity," in April 2011 as an alternative to President Obama’s budget proposal.
So far, Ryan has outlined major parts of his budget only in broad generalities, without specifying tough spending cuts and without identifying a single popular tax break he would be willing to eliminate to help offset the cost of additional tax relief. He has proposed combining the six personal income tax rates into two, 10 percent and 25 percent, and cutting the corporate rate from 35 percent to 25 percent.
The Wisconsin Republican also strongly favors the repeal of President Obama’s Affordable Health Care law, even though his own idea for Medicare — a voucher program to subsidize a menu of private health plans — is similar to the Obama plan’s for insurance expansion. But he has not offered a plan that would provide coverage to nearly as many people.
As Romney moved closer to wrapping up the Republican presidential nomination early this spring, Ryan climbed aboard the Romney campaign bandwagon and ingratiated himself with all- out campaigning. Ryan was also one of the first prominent Republicans to vigorously defend Romney against Obama campaign attack ads that denounced Romney and his former firm, Bain Capital, as “vulture capitalists” that sucked massive profits out of struggling companies before allowing them go bankrupt and lay off thousands of workers. Ryan countered by citing the Obama administration’s failed gamble on Bay Area solar panel firm Solyndra, that went bankrupt last year and laid off more than 1,000 workers.
“What Bain did was [use] private capital to help struggling businesses,” Ryan said. “What President Obama is doing is he’s gambling with taxpayer money and giving money to corporate contributors, to campaign contributors like Solyndra, and he’s losing taxpayer money.”