Paul Ryan has had his eyes on Social Security for a long time.
In 2001, when Republicans controlled the presidency and were well positioned on Capitol Hill, Ryan was invited to the White House to present ideas to the new Bush-Cheney administration.
The well-regarded second-term congressman met with Vice President Dick Cheney, who was at the peak of his co-presidency powers. Like Cheney in his younger years, Ryan was a former congressional aide who had worked the conservative think-tank circuit before getting himself elected to the House. The Washington insiders should have gotten on famously.
But the vice president was not buying what the man, who is now described as “the intellectual leader of the Republican Party,” was selling.
Ryan recalls the meeting this way:
“The surplus has given us a huge opportunity,” I explained. “If we dedicate the Social Security surplus to reform, we can shore up the program and end the raid on the trust fund.” I talked about the opportunity to create a real ownership society, how workers could actually own a piece of the free enterprise system through these reforms. As soon as I finished my pitch, Vice President Cheney said, “Yeah, we’re not going to do that.” Then he looked at the person sitting next to me, signaling that he was ready to hear the next idea. His terse reply was the verbal equivalent of someone swatting an annoying mosquito from his face.
Thats’s not the only point in his new book where Ryan writes of getting the “annoying mosquito” treatment. The House Budget Committee chairman paints a dim picture of fellow Republicans who get weak in the knees whenever he starts prattling on about dismantling Social Security as we know it. Needless to say, he is even more relentless in his criticisms of President Obama and the Democrats on this issue.
What Ryan never quite recognizes is that Cheney, for all his conservatism, has always been something of a realist when it comes to domestic politics. (He saves his neoconservative flights of fantasy for foreign-policy debates.) Like Ryan, Cheney learned his politics in Wisconsin. Though he was raised in Wyoming, the future vice president cut his political teeth as an aide to former Governor Warren Knowles and then to Wisconsin Congressman William Steiger.