Rep. Paul Ryan, the youthful GOP vice presidential candidate whose deficit-cutting ideas are likely to reshape the presidential debates, learned politics and policy under the sway of a long string of mentors.
While still in college, the Wisconsin Republican began his career as a lowly staffer for then-Sen. Bob Kasten, R-Wis., followed by a speechwriting job for GOP vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp of New York and the conservative think tank Empower America, founded by Kemp and pundit William Bennett. He served as legislative director to Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas before returning home to run for an open House seat, which he won in 1998 at the age of 28.
Ryan, 42, is the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee and commands the same prominence on fiscal matters that many of his mentors once enjoyed. Yet the budget and health care ideas he has offered as a conservative response to Obama administration policies are so risky – especially as they apply to Medicare -- that many in his own party were surprised that Romney chose him for the ticket.
There’s no doubt that Medicare as an unfunded liability is unsustainable. According to the Social Security Administration, “The projected date of the Medicare Trust Fund exhaustion is 2024.” Ryan’s idea for Medicare reform includes a private insurance voucher option for people under the age of 56.
Politically risky proposals for phasing out the premier government health care program for the elderly and reviving failed Bush-era efforts to privatize Social Security to address soaring deficits are not on the agenda of many GOP leaders, who sense an opportunity to win control of the Senate in November.
Ryan, the son of a lawyer who died when Ryan was only 16, has spent practically his entire career in politics and public policy. He is more conservative than many of the voters in the 1st Congressional District in southern Wisconsin, which went for Obama over Republican John McCain in the 2008 presidential election. In the House, he has largely voted in the Republican mainstream, although he has occasionally broken with his party by taking more centrist stands on foreign policy and some social issues.
In 2007, he supported the Employee Non-Discrimination Act, banning workplace discrimination against gays and lesbians and said he has gay friends. “They didn’t roll out of bed one morning and choose to be gay. That’s who they are,” he said, acknowledging he “took a lot of grief” for the ENDA vote from members of his own party, so much so that he “stopped worrying about it.” He says his attitude towards gays is a “generational thing” — less important to him than to older people, perhaps. He also voted forTARP and the auto bailout—two programs that his potential “boss” disavowed.