Representative Paul Ryan
by John Nichols
If the Tea Party really is all about debts, deficits, spending and taxes—as opposed to the witchcraft, immigrant-bashing, birther fantasies and generalized Obama-hatred that forms its caricature—then Paul Ryan is the movement’s Congressman. Handsome, good-natured and blessed with an ability to reduce the most complicated fiscal issues to conservative talking points that just happen to echo Wall Street’s wish list, the Wisconsin representative has none of the rough edges of Michele Bachmann or Rand Paul. He is resolutely polite, certain without being overbearing, confident at the debate podium and, to a greater extent than any prominent Republican of the past two decades, Reaganesque.
Unfortunately, he has something else in common with the fortieth president: an approach to budget issues that owes more to Ayn Rand’s paranoid fears about making even the most minimal civic demands on "productive" elites than to facts, figures or economic realism. Ryan’s devotion to Rand, the author of dystopian novels like Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead and a favorite of the Tea Party movement’s Glenn Beck wing, is fanatical. He requires Congressional staffers to read Rand’s books and heaps praise on the prophetess of selfishness in YouTube videos that even fellow Republicans quietly acknowledge are unsettling.
Like another Rand devotee, former Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan, Ryan sees government not just as the "problem" Reagan described but as a greater threat to freedoms than the most extreme Tea Partisans imagine. Come January the Wisconsinite, who at 40 is one of the youngest members of Congress, will finally be in a position to address that perceived threat as chair of the Budget Committee, perhaps the most important in the new House. But this is not a case of an outsider storming the battlements and seizing a position of power. For all his Tea Party trappings, Ryan is a consummate insider, with a DC résumé extending back to the days of the first Bush presidency. This native of the hard-pressed Wisconsin factory town of Janesville spent almost a decade as an aide to conservative senators and twelve years representing a swing district that previously sent Democrat Les Aspin to chair the House Armed Services Committee. Ryan is about to put his long apprenticeship to work as one of the most definitional members of the new Congress.
Ryan’s role as Budget Committee chair is almost certain to put him in conflict with President Obama, with whom the Congressman clashed earlier this year during a session on budget matters and entitlement spending. That, in turn, will buttress a profile that is sufficiently prominent to have stirred speculation that Ryan might be a 2012 GOP vice presidential prospect and, ultimately, a presidential contender.
A natural campaigner and landslide winner in a district that voted for Obama, Ryan has meticulously extended his influence in recent months as a star speaker on the Tea Party circuit, a campaigner for fellow Republicans and a guest on Beck’s radio show and on Fox TV. Ryan now has a formal platform from which to argue for the radical shift in spending priorities outlined in his Roadmap for America’s Future. That document, which he drafted as his party’s prospects sank toward the close of George W. Bush’s presidency, became an unofficial manifesto for economic conservatives during the 2010 election season.