Can a Republican congressman this young and this good-looking fix Social Security?
This story was originally published in our July 2005 issue.
The lights are dim in the Waterford village hall. All eyes are on the earnest young man in the blue blazer, tan slacks and gold-and-blue striped tie who is clicking through a PowerPoint program. To the men, he’s the sharp younger brother, the kid who made good. To the women, he’s the dutiful son.
He has steely blue eyes, a thick shock of close-cropped black hair and an easy smile, all atop a lean, rangy frame. Everyone listens, hanging on each word.
The subject? Social Security.
Paul Ryan is in the house. And in The House.
Elected in 1998 and handily re-elected ever since, Ryan has established himself as a formidable politician. Youthful in appearance and demeanor, he’s shown himself to be serious enough to quickly win seats on the House’s powerful Ways and Means and Budget committees. He has all the earnestness of the Catholic altar boy he once was wrapped in an easygoing manner that disarms even critics. Without hesitation, Ryan works across the political aisle, befriending Democrats even as he hews out a clear-cut conservative platform.
Ryan is as articulate as he is good-looking. Not to mention mannerly: During a rushed interview over lunch at a Burger King, he jokes about being glad his mother can’t see him talk with his mouth full, then proceeds to cup his free hand over his mouth as he answers questions. From the podium of the Republican National Convention last summer, he stoked enthusiasm for the Bush-Cheney ticket.
He calls himself “a policy guy,” but the 35-year-old congressman carefully tends his public image and looks for notes to strike that can appeal across a broad swath of the electorate. His success, racking up landslide re-election margins and scaring away all but token Democratic opposition, belies the image of a body politic cleaved bitterly down the middle. Ideologically, he’s George W. Bush with a far better developed portfolio of issues and policy prescriptions. Politically, he’s Bill Clinton without the sex problem. There’s nothing rakish about Ryan’s charm.
He’s the model of the suburban family man – father of three, devoted husband (he flies back to his wife, Janna, and children every weekend). “He lives a very, very busy, hectic and energetic life,” gushes former Sen. Bob Kasten, who hired Ryan right out of college. “But on top of that, he lives in the real world.”
Now, as President Bush has advanced a radical overhaul of Social Security, Ryan has become the House GOP standard-bearer on the issue, his own Social Security bill emerging as a potential vehicle for turning the president’s vaguely outlined concept into workable legislation.
How the issue plays out could recast not only the nation’s most popular government program but Ryan’s own political future.
Born in Janesville, Paul Ryan grew up the youngest of the four children of Betty and Paul M. Ryan, a lawyer. His great-grandfather founded Ryan Inc. Central, a prominent excavating contractor. With his sister nine years older and two brothers eight and five years his senior, Paul “was always the tagalong, so to speak,” says his mother. “The older ones wanted to make him the mascot of their team.”
He was driven from the start. “Paul had always been, you might say, goal-oriented,” Betty Ryan says. As a boy, he developed a passion for hunting – not one of his father’s interests – and took it upon himself to get shooting lessons from Janesville outdoor writer Duncan Pledger.
“Now can I have a gun?” he asked his father, who finally agreed. Paul “had to go to work and mow some lawns to pay for half of it,” says Betty Ryan.
The same floor of the building where his father practiced law also housed the law office of the late Leon Feingold, whose son “Rusty” was some 17 years older than Paul. As a Craig High School student, young Russ Feingold helped lead a campaign to win open-campus privileges for students. Nearly two decades later, when the school board considered scrapping the program, high school student Paul Ryan and friends led the campaign to preserve the open campus. They visited Feingold, by then a state senator, to get organizing pointers. “The Ryans and the Feingolds have always been friendly and acknowledged important events in each other’s family lives,” Feingold, now a third-term U.S. senator, says today.
When Ryan was 16, his father died suddenly of a heart attack at 55. “It threw me for a loop for a couple of years.” Ryan recalls, sipping green tea in a back room at his constituent office in Racine. “I did a lot of soul-searching. A lot of self-discovery. I started forming my beliefs.”
His brother, Tobin, was a senior at Notre Dame; brother Stan and sister Janet were out of school and on their own. Fatherless and with a grandmother who had Alzheimer’s disease living at home with him and his mother, “I just grew up really fast,” says Ryan. “My biggest motivation was to make my dad proud of me.”
“His sense of responsibility hit him hard,” his mother agrees. “I think he felt he was the man of the house.”
Ryan didn’t want to follow his brother to Notre Dame, and while his mother insisted on the University of Wisconsin-Madison as a safety school, she acknowledges that Madison didn’t fit the conservative philosophy her youngest son was already developing.
A friend at the summer camp where Ryan worked as a counselor attended Miami University in Ohio and praised the school. The two teens talked about Friedrich August von Hayek, the Nobel prize-winning Austrian economist who championed free-market capitalism and whose views were influential in the Miami economics department. What’s a high school student doing reading von Hayek? “I was kind of a geek,” Ryan admits.
His grandfather and an uncle were cardiologists, and he went to Miami planning to become a doctor, until the required physics and chemistry courses turned him off. Ryan turned his focus back to economics.
He found a mentor in economics professor Richard Hart. “He didn’t come across like any 19- or 20-year-old student,” says Hart. “He was the type of student that every professor would like to have in their class – creative and imaginative in analyzing and solving problems.”
Ryan was in the top 5 percent of the class in Hart’s introductory course and in the top fifth in a later weed-out macroeconomics class.
“I’m one of the few college professors that’s outspokenly conservative,” says Hart. The two became good friends. “We would just have wonderful political discussions. Sometimes I would take the other side of the argument just for purposes of conversation.
“He was just a different breed. He was up on what was going on in politics. He was constantly thinking about how do you apply these economic concepts to solve political problems.”
With Hart’s recommendation, Ryan won a summer internship in Wisconsin Sen. Robert Kasten’s office. After graduating from Miami, he returned to join Kasten’s staff. “He immediately distinguished himself as a bright, hard-working person,” says Kasten, who assigned Ryan to the Senate’s Small-business Committee, working on projects to promote entrepreneurship. Along the way, he moonlighted as a gym trainer and waited tables.
Russ Feingold unseated Kasten in 1992 and cut short Ryan’s career, but not for long. He landed on his feet, first on the staff of Empower America, where he ghosted papers for Jack Kemp and William Bennett, the conservative think tank’s founders, and later as a staffer for a Kansas congressman named Sam Brownback. When Sen. Robert Dole quit to run for president in 1996, Brownback campaigned for Dole’s Senate seat and left Ryan, his legislative director, to do far more than the usual staff work.
It gave Ryan a taste of what being a congressman might be like. So in 1997, when Republican Congressman Mark Neumann in the First Congressional District of Wisconsin decided to give up the seat in ’98 so he could take on Feingold, Ryan already had a pretty good idea of what the job demanded. Ryan’s growing number of political mentors suggested that he consider running for the First District seat.
Sprawling across Wisconsin’s southern tier, the First Congressional District historically tied together blue-collar factory towns – Beloit, Janesville, Racine, Burlington and Kenosha – with rural farms and the resort communities around Lake Geneva. For two decades, voters in the district reliably returned Democrat Les Aspin to the House seat, where he rose as an expert on military matters and went on to become President Bill Clinton’s first secretary of defense.
Aspin’s Democratic successor lost the seat in 1994, one of the casualties in Newt Gingrich’s breathtaking campaign that put congressional Republicans in charge for the first time in nearly 40 years. The victor, Neumann, a staunchly conservative homebuilder, quickly earned a reputation as an abrasive ideologue in the Gingrich mold. Neumann narrowly held on to the seat in 1996 before challenging Feingold.
“When it was plain that Mark Neumann was going, Paul came by and asked my advice whether he ought to run,” says James Sensenbrenner, Wisconsin’s most senior congressional Republican. “I encouraged him. He obviously was the perfect candidate.”
Ryan’s mother then put him in touch with a couple of Republican activists close to the family, one a fraternity brother of his late father. “He did go to Gov. [Tommy] Thompson,” Betty Ryan recalls, “who said, ‘The way you should do this is probably come back here and run for state Senate.’ But that would have defeated the opportunity.” Unwilling to pass up the open seat, Ryan ignored the advice of the state’s highest-ranking Republican and announced his candidacy in February 1998.
Electing Ryan to Congress became a family affair. He moved into a friend’s guest room in Janesville. His brother, Tobin, and Tobin’s wife quit jobs in London and flew back to help out. Betty, who had remarried and moved from Wisconsin, came back to Janesville and became his scheduler.
On election night, people expected a nail-biter. Two years earlier, the Democratic challenger, Lydia Spottswood, a Kenosha alderperson, had come within a few thousand votes of retiring Neumann in a race that seesawed back and forth into the late hours. This time, though, Ryan defeated her handily – and early. His elation overwhelmed him in his victory speech: Thanking a cheering crowd, he vowed, “I’m going to work my butt off for you guys!”
It’s February in Washington: occasional drizzle, temperatures in the 40s, gray skies. Congress is back in session after a break for President Bush’s State of the Union speech.
The topic of the day is Bush’s new budget, but what’s really on the table is Social Security. The president has advanced a plan – a trial balloon, really – to change the 60-year-old retirement program by creating individual accounts invested in the stock market.
In the wedge-shaped Longworth House office building across from the Capitol, Ryan hustles back and forth between committee meetings.
The young congressman isn’t in the Ways and Means room yet as the committee’s chairman, Bill Thomas, an acerbic, professorial California Republican, offers lofty promises about a “bipartisan approach” in debating the issue.
Yet bipartisanship is anything but evident here. Ranking Democrat Charlie Rangel of Brooklyn lectures Treasury Secretary John Snow, and by extension the rest of the GOP majority. The budget plan says absolutely nothing about how the president will pay for the War in Iraq or his new retirement plan. “The Social Security proposal the president is talking about is dead. If you were serious about it, certainly it would be put into the budget.”
When he gets his chance, Snow boasts of U.S. economic growth that he attributes to Bush’s first-term tax cuts, then warns of a looming $10 trillion shortfall in the Social Security trust fund. As committee members offer little more than mini-speeches, Ryan, looking markedly younger than everyone in the room, takes his seat in a row for junior members, quietly takes notes and reviews his briefing papers.
Twenty minutes later, he slips out, walks down a hall, up some stairs and enters the crowded meeting room of the Budget Committee. More sparring and spinning, this time on the president’s budget. The Republican chairman, Jim Nussle of Iowa, is trying to lay down the rules regarding criticism of the plan.
“You’re not allowed to come out with something and say you don’t like it,” Nussle says, “because ‘No’ is not an answer.” In a rich Southern voice that belongs in a play by Tennessee Williams, ranking Democrat John Spratt of South Carolina lectures back. If Congress goes along with making the tax cuts permanent and trying to pay for Bush’s Social Security proposal, he concludes, “I don’t see how we can ever put this budget back in balance.”
On the move again, Ryan heads back to Ways and Means, where he gets his turn to quiz Treasury Secretary Snow. Like an ace debater, Ryan uses his time to rhetorical effect. Democrats consider the Social Security program to be in better shape than the president claims, Ryan points out, especially considering the current size of the Social Security Trust Fund – $1.6 trillion.
What follows may not be scripted, but everyone here knows his part.
“Where are those assets in the trust fund?” Ryan asks Snow. “Is there a bank account?”
It’s a question Snow is clearly dying to answer: “Those assets are IOUs.”
“So there’s no cash behind those assets,” Ryan says. To continue to pay Social Security benefits in the future, “We have to either borrow money or cut spending.”
Snow agrees and Ryan goes for the big finish.
“My generation is looking at a 1 percent rate of return” on their Social Security payroll taxes, he asserts. “My children will get about a negative 1.7 percent rate of return.” Echoing Snow’s claim that the trust fund will be $10 trillion in debt in less than a century, he waves away the cost of changing Social Security to include private accounts.
“If we have a plan that costs $2 trillion and it wipes off the books a $10 trillion debt, I’ll take that deal any day!”
His mission accomplished, Ryan settles back into his chair.
Walking from his office later, Ryan tells me, “I’ll bet you thought that hearing was all a sham.” It’s like that, he acknowledges. But that’s mostly when the TV cameras are on. He is an optimist: Real work does get done and compromises are made, he insists, when committees mark up the bills for amendment and action.
Ryan’s own work ethic in the drudgery of lawmaking has won plenty of attention. Staffers say he reads bills and policy papers himself, voraciously – not necessarily the norm among many members of Congress. He shows up at meetings of committees he’s not on, such as a health subcommittee delving into the arcane formulas of Medicare’s payments to doctors.
“To be effective here, you have to be a specialist,” Ryan says over lunch in his Washington office. “So I focus on the issues that matter the most back home – retirement, healthcare, economics and the tax code.”
Indeed, healthcare is one of Ryan’s pet issues. Back in the 2001-’02 session of Congress, he and then-Rep. Tom Barrett teamed up to order a federal study of why Milwaukee healthcare costs are so high. If your employer has replaced your insurance plan with one that has a high deductible and includes a health savings account, you can thank – or curse – Ryan, who put HSAs in the Medicare reform bill a couple of years ago. Now he’s introduced legislation aimed to help the uninsured by further promoting HSAs and expanding the tax deductibility of premiums for people who buy their own health insurance.
This January, Ryan took time back in the district to stop at the Muskego Chamber of Commerce for a chicken dinner and a lecture on how we pay for medical care – and how he thinks we should.
Speaking without notes, he paced in front of his audience. “Not one meeting goes by when someone doesn’t come to me and say, ‘The cost of healthcare is killing us!’” Ryan said, to nods of assent. “Our system is unsustainable right now.”
With that, Ryan made the pitch for his prescription, framing the issue as a simple either/or choice between “single-payer, socialized medicine or consumer-directed healthcare.” Ryan favors the latter, a system whereby the average person takes on more responsibility for paying healthcare costs. The current system suffers from “a fatal flaw,” he told the Muskego audience. “You don’t care what things cost because someone else is paying the bills and you really can’t shop around.”
Next on his wish list is more transparent data that patients can use to judge how well hospitals and individual doctors really do in treating the sick. “If we’re going to have more consumerism in healthcare, you have to have the key information for the system to work,” he told the Muskego Chamber lunch crowd. “Providers have been fighting us tooth and nail.”
It was a vintage Ryan performance – solidly grounded in homework, just enough data points dropped in to resonate with authority and all delivered engagingly in plain-spoken language.
Without once concealing his central ideology, which elevates economic liberty above virtually all else, Ryan nonetheless manages to wrap it in the velvet glove of common sense and confidence. Colleagues and outside political observers alike acknowledge his skill at crossing the party divide. Ryan speaks against government-run healthcare and votes against abortion rights and gay marriage. Yet Madison Rep. Tammy Baldwin, whose own healthcare plan calls for states to sponsor health insurance for all and who, like most Democrats in Congress, is reliably pro-choice on abortion and who was the first open lesbian elected to Congress, says she and Ryan have developed a friendly and effective working relationship.
“I spend a fair amount of time with Paul,” says Baldwin. “Usually that time is in airports and on planes. We share anecdotes about our work week at home or our work week in Washington, but we don’t try to change one another’s world-view. I’ll ask how Janna and the kids are and he’ll ask about my work and my family. And we seek each other out on issues where we think we can work well together, especially when it’s in the interest of our constituents.”
“He’s cordial with everybody,” agrees Feingold. “He and I get along very well.”
Ryan has shown significant crossover appeal, garnering two-thirds of the vote last year against Jeff Thomas, a Janesville doctor who has run perennially for the seat since the mid-’90s. One way he’s done so is by finding rare opportunities to break rank with Republicans. He’s voted in favor of letting consumers buy cheaper prescription drugs re-imported from Canada. He’s voted against the GOP for rules that boost construction wages on government projects, which give union contractors a leg up in bidding. On a major transportation bill, Ryan says, “I fought attempts to gut that in committee.” He won.
Ryan also courts African-American voters. In 2003, he and Janna joined the nonpartisan Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage. Led by Congressman John Lewis, who 40 years ago headed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the pilgrimage takes lawmakers to Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery, Alabama, to remind them of that era’s struggles.
Two years later, Ryan passes Lewis after a committee meeting and nods toward the Georgia Democrat. “He’s a hero,” Ryan says without hesitation. Later, he elaborates: “I have a sister-in-law who’s African American. My college sweetheart was black. I just experienced some ugly comments, some racist views from people who I thought were friends of mine.” Jack Kemp – notable for trying to broaden the Republican Party’s appeal to blacks – “taught me a lot, too,” Ryan continues. Despite all that, when he joined the Civil Rights pilgrimage, “I didn’t know anything about that. I just learned so much about the Civil Rights movement and the absolute bravery it took. And I’m a big, big fan of Martin Luther King.”
Ryan’s willingness to cross party lines begins close to home. Ask his wife. An aide to a conservative Oklahoma Democrat in Congress and the niece of David Boren, a veteran Oklahoma Democrat who served in the Senate and as governor, Janna Little and Ryan had crossed paths in Washington since the early ’90s. It wasn’t until after his election to Congress, however, that the two started dating. Janna says his interest in her may have been piqued when Ryan, an avid bow hunter, spotted her in camouflage at a dinner for the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, which bird-dogs legislation affecting hunters’ rights.
Ryan asked her to lunch. “We talked a lot about his campaign and how it was that he came to decide to run for Congress,” she says. “We talked a lot about our families.”
They didn’t argue politics, but Janna remembers that Ryan’s own views came through with vigor. “He definitely has really strong and clear ideas about the government and the role of government – his belief in individuals and individual empowerment. It comes out if you’re talking about books or if you’re talking about anything, even just relationships with people.”
Ryan asked her about her family and about law school, which she had just finished. By the time lunch was over, “I remember just this feeling: ‘Oh, my goodness gracious! I think I’m going to marry this guy.’ ”
It’s the cocktail hour, mid-week. Ryan and an aide step out from the elevator on the 10th floor of the Carpenters Union offices, a sleek building off Constitution Avenue. In the plush foyer, a harpist and flautist play background music.
He walks briskly through a large outer office that has been given over to a buffet of smoked salmon, shrimp, stuffed mushrooms and other delicacies, along with beer, soda and cocktails and a dessert tray of fresh fruit and chocolate sauce. After getting permission from a union official, he steps through a doorway to show off the office of the union’s president.
Rich, cherry-colored cabinetry and furniture adorn the room, and the floor-to-ceiling wall of windows overlooks the lit-up Capitol building – a life-size, 3-D postcard. Ryan is bubbling with boyish enthusiasm as he points out the sleek office’s amenities. “It’s like the spaceship Enterprise!” he beams, grinning.
Back out in the main room, Ryan sips a soda as he chats easily with the union lobbyists hosting this meet-and-greet for congressional Republicans friendly to organized labor. Ryan spots a union official’s nametag: Tim O’Sullivan. “Where are you from in Ireland?” Ryan asks. “I’m from Kerry,” O’Sullivan replies. “Really! I’m from Tipperary.”
Ryan’s ease and camaraderie with these unionists may be a striking departure from the standard Republican political playbook, but it’s not all that surprising. Ryan Inc. Central, his cousins’ excavating company, is a union shop; Ryan worked there in high school and later briefly as a marketing consultant while running for office. “I grew up in organized labor,” he says. “I have a lot of constituents who are in organized labor. I really do not have this ‘us against them’ mentality.”
In his years on the Hill, his stock with unions has only risen. “Paul is one of a group of Congressmen and women who support us on construction industry issues,” says Christopher Heinz, the Carpenters’ political director. “We’ve had disagreements on things, sure. But that’s one of the things I like about Paul. There are other people – on both sides of the aisle – who, ‘If you don’t agree with me on everything, you don’t agree with me at all.’”
When a castings plant in Kenosha shut down a few months ago after the union got its first contract there, state Carpenters Union chief Mark Reihl called all around for help, including Ryan. “I left a message in his Janesville office on Thursday night. The next day, he called me back and asked what he could do to help.”
Ryan secured the CEO’s support for a federal trade adjustment grant for the plant’s 82 laid-off workers. “I didn’t have to go through an aide,” Reihl marvels. “He got on it, he made that call and he called back to report what happened.”
So a handful of unions have rewarded his loyalty with theirs, endorsing Ryan and donating through their political action committees a total of more than $90,000 over the last three election cycles, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Although just a fraction of the $1.3 million Ryan collected in the 2004 campaign alone – his biggest donors were in finance and healthcare – they far outstrip labor donations to most GOP candidates.
Even unionists unlikely to ever endorse him credit his political skills and sincerity. “He’s an amazing politician,” says John Drew, former president of United Auto Workers Local 72 in Kenosha and now a UAW staff member. “If I called Paul Ryan when I was president of the local, within two hours I would get a personal phone call back. He showed up at my going-away party from Local 72 – on a Saturday night he drove across the district just to see me and some Chrysler executives. That’s just an indication of the kind of politician he is. He understands that people respond to that.
“I respect him, I appreciate his attentiveness and disagree with him on practically all aspects of public policy.”
When Paul Ryan came to Washington in 1999, he had a very different Social Security plan, summed up in two words: lock box. After just five months in office, Ryan introduced a bill that would have blocked the federal government from using Social Security payroll tax revenues for other government spending.
In an era when soaring deficits were still fresh in memory, the bill had a certain raw appeal. The legislation never went anywhere, though. With President Bush now in office, the congressional Republican majority – including Ryan – cut taxes instead. Then, after the 9/11 attacks, Ryan acknowledged that the “lock box” idea was all but dead.
A commission Bush convened urged action on Social Security and made recommendations, but with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the issue largely fell off the table. At the Republican National Convention last summer, Bush touted an “ownership society” that would turn programs like Social Security and health insurance into individual responsibilities. But only after his re-election did Bush move from airy platitudes to a hard push for remaking Social Security through private investment accounts.
Social Security isn’t a pension program. Taxes from the people working now go to pay the benefits of people retired now. The Roosevelt administration set it up that way to reduce poverty in old age during the Great Depression. It wanted to be able to pay the elderly right then, not in a generation. For decades, it worked. With more than 40 workers for every retiree in the 1930s, payroll taxes to fund the system were small. As the number of workers supporting each retiree has shrunk – it’s down to just over three today and shrinking – payroll taxes have inched up to their current level.
This is the starting point for the case Ryan lays out, as he did in more than 30 meetings with constituents over two weeks this past winter. Ryan’s solution: Curtail the current “pay as you go” system and establish individual accounts that people could own and even pass on to heirs.
His bill – largely designed by Peter Ferrara of a free-market think tank called the Institute for Policy Innovation and co-sponsored in the Senate by Republican New Hampshire Sen. John Sununu – is even more adventurous than what Bush has floated so far. Workers over 55, Ryan says, would not be affected at all. But workers under 55, instead of all of their payroll taxes going to pay today’s retirees, would have the option of putting part of their payroll taxes into a personal account.
“We’re not proposing privatizing Social Security,” Ryan emphasizes. “Not even partially privatizing Social Security. This is within the system.”
It’s an important rhetorical point. The biggest fear among skeptics of private accounts is that people would be exploited by fee-hungry brokers, make bad investments and wind up with nothing to retire on. Ryan says his plan avoids that, offering workers five narrowly drawn options that invest their payroll taxes in “very broad-based index, stock and bond funds.”
Ryan doesn’t stop there, though. Unlike virtually every other such proposal, he wants his bill to guarantee that workers would get at the very least the Social Security benefits they’d already qualify for if they didn’t opt for personal accounts.
Wouldn’t people who retire when the market’s down be wiped out? He’s thought of that; Ryan wants the system to automatically move people’s accounts into increasingly secure investments as they age, “so when you get near retirement, you’re totally out of the stock market.”
Ryan is sharp and sophisticated and serious, yet at times the whole thing begins to feel like one of those Ronco pitches on TV. He never says, “But wait! There’s more!” Yet there is.
Ryan contends that his plan actually favors poorer workers – putting larger chunks of a poorer person’s income into higher-yielding individual accounts, smaller portions of a wealthier worker’s. “Whether you’re Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, we can all agree it would be a good thing if we decentralized the concentration of wealth in this country,” Ryan says. “It would be a good thing if we narrowed the gap between rich and poor and disseminated more broadly the wealth in this country.”
But he does what may be his fanciest footwork when it comes to explaining how he will pay for the program: by holding government spending increases to no more than 3.5 percent a year and by no longer using Social Security payroll taxes, the vaunted “Trust Fund,” in the general budget, as they are now.
That part of the proposal leads political blogger Marshall Wittmann, once a conservative and now allied with centrist Democrats, to dismiss Ryan and fellow travelers as “the free-lunch crowd.”
At a seminar in February sponsored by the Cato Institute, a Libertarian think tank in Washington advancing even more dramatic social security privatization schemes, one of Ryan’s colleagues, veteran Florida Republican Congressman Clay Shaw, gently chided the young Wisconsin congressman’s reliance on spending cuts to pay for his plan.
“I’m in my 25th year in Congress,” Shaw said. “That’s a good objective, but you can’t count on it.… To assume Congress is going to have a fiscal discipline about it is a stretch.”
Unfazed, Ryan politely shot back: “I want to change that mind-set.”
So assured of his beliefs, with such a disarming, gosh-how-could-it-be-simpler style, Ryan can lay out a message in which his starkly black-and-white ideology hides in plain sight.
Social Security is an object lesson. The very way it’s currently designed – and proposals like Ryan’s to completely reinvent it – cut right to the heart of a fundamental division in American politics and economics: For whom is each of us responsible? Each other? Or mostly just ourselves?
Karen Holden, a University of Wisconsin-Madison consumer science and public affairs professor who served on a research panel task force studying the program, contends that Social Security does what it’s supposed to do well and efficiently.
“The role of government is to guard against unexpected insecurity in terms of the economic market,” says Holden. “We want people to be able to take risks, yet have that security at the end. That, the Social Security system does very well. A private system and a personal account system doesn’t do that too well.”
Yet as successful and popular as Social Security has been, it has also always rankled a certain wedge of the American body politic: too much government trampling too much on the individual.
Paul Ryan is very clear on which side of that division he stands. “I believe in free-market approaches to bring prosperity to those who don’t have it,” he says. “And I don’t believe that collectivism or centralized government is the means to do that. Operating for the common good at the expense of individual rights and individual freedoms is just the wrong direction. The way to really expand freedom is to help people achieve it who don’t have it. To be able to be self-sufficient to support their families – that, to me, is freedom.”
By spring, it was Ryan’s bill – not a rival one Shaw had authored – that was getting unsolicited accolades from GOP leaders Tom DeLay and Dennis Hastert. Admittedly, Bush himself hasn’t embraced Ryan’s specifics and, in contrast to the congressman, began talking in late April about having to cut benefits for higher-income workers. Ryan’s response is at once boastful and politic: He asserts that his own plan, because it uses larger private accounts, is the only one that brings the system to solvency without benefit cuts. Then in the next breath, he modestly dismisses talk of a coming showdown with the president: “I’m under no delusions my bill will pass as it is,” he says. “What the final product will look like, I don’t know.”
Voters, though, have been telling pollsters they don’t want any change and don’t trust the president or the GOP on the issue. Republican solidarity is fissuring. Joe Wineke, gearing up to head the Wisconsin Democratic Party, sees an opening. He calls Ryan’s Social Security plan “a potential huge mistake” and vows that Democrats will use it to run hard against him next year.
Ryan’s partisans don’t seem to worry. “Paul Ryan will prosper because he will go down as someone not afraid of a lot of creative thinking,” says Dick Armey, former House Republican majority leader. “Paul Ryan represents the really able future of the Republican Party in Wisconsin.”
Even Russ Feingold doesn’t expect Ryan to suffer: “He’s dead-wrong on this, but I don’t think that means people will disrespect that because he’s come honestly to the position. I would be surprised if it makes him particularly vulnerable in that district.”
Still, if Ryan gets even half a loaf, it will confirm what the young congressman’s fans are already saying. Ryan’s old professor, Richard Hart, has been admiring him from afar, following his career through his daughter, an aide to a congressional Democrat. “She tells me that the word around D.C.is that he’s one of the up-and-coming superstars of the Republican Party. I certainly hope that’s true.” M
Regular contributor Erik Gunn recently won the Milwaukee Press Club’s award for best business story for “On the Line,” November’s cover feature on Master Lock.