x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Are Paul Ryan's fiscal policies good for his own party?

The Republican vice presidential nominee has inspired the American right wing. But will the congressman's budget ideas be good or bad for his party?

Illustration of Paul Ryan by Patrick Morgan for The National
Illustration of Paul Ryan by Patrick Morgan for The National

Presumptive Republican US presidential nominee Mitt Romney's announcement this week that he would select Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as his running mate made everyone happy. Conservative Republicans, who had thrown their support behind each of Romney's primary season challengers - Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum - before reluctantly endorsing the former Massachusetts governor, had been agitating for months for a vice-presidential pick they approved of. Worried that some of Romney's potential choices were too moderate, they had publicly prodded Romney to select Ryan, who was also seen as providing the dynamism otherwise lacking from the ticket. Conservative activists and media figures such as Rush Limbaugh were ecstatic about the choice.

Perhaps happiest of all, as John Dickerson points out in Slate, were President Obama and his re-election team, who had been striving for months to link Romney to the Ryan agenda, hoping to tie Romney's mostly policy free campaign to the very specific plans proposed by Ryan. Ryan's ideas have been overwhelmingly popular with conservatives and substantially less so with the electorate at large. The election now becomes less of a referendum on Obama's first term in office and more of a choice between two competing visions of government. Now, with Ryan as his running mate, creating any daylight between Romney's campaign and Ryan's proposed changes to Medicare and Social Security becomes that much more difficult. The Obama team believes that competing against Ryan and his ideas gives them a natural advantage going into November.

So who is Paul Ryan? Is he the saviour of the Republican Party, his wonkish appeal enough to lift the sagging fortunes of the party and return them to the White House? Or is he the bogeyman of the conservative agenda, a smiling face masking the dismantling of the social safety net?

Like Sarah Palin in 2008 or Dan Quayle in 1988, Ryan provides an injection of youth and conservative appeal for an older candidate struggling to reach out to the right wing of his party. At 42, Ryan is the youngest vice presidential nominee since Quayle 24 years ago. The 65-year-old Romney's eldest son is the same age as his running mate. But unlike those famously inexperienced candidates, Ryan has developed a reputation as a policy wonk during his seven terms in the House of Representatives.

Ryan was one of the prime inspirations for President George W Bush's failed 2005 attempt to overhaul the US Social Security system. Together with then-Senator John Sununu, Ryan proposed transforming the programme into a privatised, market-based system. While Bush's popularity took a substantial hit with the failure, Ryan was elevated from inexperienced young legislator to elder statesman of the party.

Since then, Ryan has become the mentor to a new wave of Tea Party supported, fiscally conscious Republican representatives intent on remaking Washington in their image. With the Republican takeover of the House after the 2010 election, Ryan became the enormously influential chairman of the House Budget Committee and a key player in last year's budget battle, when the Republican-controlled House refused to lift the debt ceiling without a comprehensive package of concessions on future spending from President Obama and the Democratic-controlled Senate. Ryan's refusal to endorse the "grand bargain" being hashed out by Obama spelt the doom of any such compromise on fiscal issues. Ryan is the Republican's designated professor and its conscience.

Paul Ryan was born in 1970 in Janesville, Wisconsin. His great-grandfather, Patrick W Ryan, founded an earthmoving company in 1884 that his extended family would eventually turn into the successful business Ryan Incorporated Central.

When he was 16 years old, Ryan discovered his father in bed, dead of a heart attack. His mother went back to college and Ryan took a job at McDonald's while also running for, and winning, the presidency of his junior class. He went on to college at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, his tuition partially paid for by Social Security survivor benefits. He studied there with a libertarian economics professor named Rich Hart, who helped introduce him to icons of conservative ideology like Friedrich Hayek and Ayn Rand. Rand is still enough of a touchstone for Ryan that he requires all of his staffers and interns to read her work.

Oxford is in the congressional district of John Boehner - now the Speaker of the House - and Ryan volunteered on his 1992 campaign. He also worked as a summer intern on the staff of Senator Bob Kasten of Wisconsin, who was impressed, according to an interview with The New York Times, with Ryan's seriousness. "He was just interested in the ideas," said Kasten. "We never talked about him someday wanting to be a congressman or a senator or a vice president." After graduating, Ryan went on to work for the congressman, flat-tax enthusiast and future vice-presidential candidate Jack Kemp, first as a speechwriter, then as an analyst for Kemp's think tank Empower America. He was also a speechwriter for Kemp during the 1996 presidential campaign, when Kemp served as Bob Dole's running mate.

Having spent his entire adult life in Washington, Ryan worked in marketing for Ryan Incorporated Central for two years before running for office. He ran for the House in his family's Wisconsin district in 1998 after being recruited by the retiring holder of the seat, Mark Neumann. Ryan went on to defeat his Democratic rival, Lydia Spottswood, by 14 points. He would win re-election six more times, receiving about 65 per cent of the vote on average in a district won by Barack Obama in 2008.

Keenly aware of his family history - his father died at 55, his grandfather at 57, and his great-grandfather at 59 - Ryan is a devotee of physical fitness, and has encouraged some of his House colleagues to join him in the challenging P90X workout routine. He prefers to spend most of his week at home with his wife Janna and his three children in Janesville, often leaving Washington on Thursday nights to return to Wisconsin. Ryan has no home of his own in DC, sleeping most nights on a bed in his office. He is known for walking the halls of Congress listening to his iPod - Led Zeppelin and Rage Against the Machine are favourites - and for having used an old truck as a mobile office to meet constituents.

Ryan is famous, above all, for an array of policy proposals that have come to be known as The Ryan Plan. Working along with two other young Republican House leaders, Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy, Ryan's Roadmap for America's Future Act was, in the words of The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza, "a comprehensive plan to reduce the welfare state and radically curtail the government's role in protecting citizens from life's misfortunes". It was also an expression of dissatisfaction with the increases in government spending during the presidency of George W Bush, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Medicare prescription-drug benefit - all of which Ryan had voted for as a House member.

The Roadmap became a badge of seriousness and intellectual legitimacy for the governmental reformers of the Republican party, intent on proving their opposition to what they saw as President Obama's runaway spending. Its most pertinent details, and the ones that have proven most controversial as The Ryan Plan became Republican gospel, include transforming a percentage of Social Security benefits into private accounts, the replacement of Medicare with vouchers and Medicaid with block grants to the states. Critics on the left see The Ryan Plan as the dismantling of the social safety net, an attempt to balance the budget on the backs of the poor. Its supporters view The Ryan Plan as the only honest attempt to wrestle with a government whose spending has grown far beyond the means to pay for it, and a system of entitlement programs destined to go bankrupt without reform.

Romney has run, by most accounts, a fairly one-note campaign against Obama, arguing that the economy is still in perilous condition and in need of the strong hand of a businessman to right it. The addition of Ryan to the ticket adds a substantial amount of policy wonk heft, along with the mixed blessing of a fully articulated - some say too articulated - economic plan. Will older voters, especially those in swing states such as Florida and Ohio, support a ticket predicated on making substantial changes to benefits such as Social Security and Medicare? Even fiscally conservative voters may quail at the notion of a country with government services cut to the barest essentials.

Perhaps Ryan's prospects for transforming the election can best be summarized by former Bush adviser Mark McKinnon, who told Politico: "I think it's a very bold choice. And an exciting and interesting pick. It's going to elevate the campaign into a debate over big ideas. It means Romney-Ryan can run on principles and provide some real direction and vision for the Republican Party. And probably lose. Maybe big."

The Biog

1970 Paul Ryan is born in Janesville, Wisconsin

1986 Father dies of a heart attack

1996 Works as a speechwriter for Republican vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp

1998 Elected to Congress

2003 Votes for President Bush’s Medicare Part D prescription-drug benefit

2005 The Ryan-endorsed Social Security reform proposed by President Bush fails to pass Congress

2008 Introduces The Path to Prosperity: Roadmap for America’s Future Act of 2008, the precursor of what comes to be known as the Ryan Plan

2010 Offers the Republican response to the State of the Union

2011 Opposes the budget compromise being negotiated by President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner

2011 The Ryan Plan is passed on a party-line vote in the House of Representatives

2012 Selected by Mitt Romney as his running mate