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.
Ryan is a dynamic speaker, and has strongly advocated the line-item veto and changes in the federal budget process to impose greater spending discipline. In 2005, President George W. Bush was so enamored of Ryan’s willingness to go out on a limb (he criticized Bush’s tax cuts as too anemic) that the president offered him a job as White House Budget Director. Ryan turned him down, but the presidential attention gave him a higher profile in the House. Ryan used that increased visibility to vault over a dozen senior Republicans to become the ranking GOP member on the House Budget Committee.
Ryan was helped immensely by his long-standing friendship with Boehner, who recalls Ryan putting up yard signs for him in 1990 when Ryan was a student at Miami University in Ohio. "He’s a bright, hardworking young man and I think the world of him,” Boehner said in 2010.
Wasting little time in asserting his views on the Budget Committee, Ryan offered an alternative to the House Democrats’ fiscal 2007 budget, calling for deep cuts in spending on government services and entitlement programs, in an effort to balance the budget by 2012. The majority Democrats rejected Ryan’s plan out of hand, as did 40 Republican members, who thought the proposal went too far.
In 2009, when Republicans refused to commit to a comprehensive response to the Democrats’ health care reform proposals and budget, Ryan rolled up his sleeves and prepared a finely detailed, expansive plan that spelled out his ideas.
Ryan’s plan would incrementally raise the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 until it reached 67 in 2033. Starting in 2022, new recipients would get vouchers to buy private health insurance instead of being in the government plan. The eligibility age for Social Security also would go up and benefits for upper-income recipients would be linked to inflation like everyone else, not the wages they earned. And in the most controversial part of the plan, workers would be allowed to put some of their payroll taxes into personal savings accounts, not the overall Social Security program.
Ryan defends these ideas as necessary to “save” the programs. Opponents charge he’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing trying to scrap the services altogether.
Whatever the motive, Ryan has gotten plenty of attention. He’s highly sought after as a speaker and has been invited to make appearances in first-primary-state New Hampshire this year. He has stressed in the past, however, that he doesn’t have the fire to run for president, a claim that will be challenged as he now travels across the country trying to ignite enthusiasm for Romney.
"My head’s not that big and my kids are too small,” he has previously said, citing his three elementary school-aged children. As a congressman, Ryan returned home every weekend to the town of Janesville, Wis., where he grew up.
Former House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich, R-Ohio, now Governor of Ohio, is another former Ryan mentor. The hyperactive Kasich says he sees Ryan as a little like himself — not afraid to stick his neck out for ideas even if they are not universally accepted.
"I’m the expert on being rejected in the party on ideas that get blocked,” Kasich said in between campaign stops in Ohio. “He’s going to get his way over time. He’s getting more and more stature and more and more recognition. He thinks outside the box and he’s having a ball."