One day in March, 2009, two months after the Inauguration of President Obama, Representative Paul Ryan, of Wisconsin, sat behind a small table in a cramped meeting space in his Capitol Hill office. Hunched forward in his chair, he rattled off well-rehearsed critiques of the new President’s policies and America’s lurch toward a “European” style of government. Ryan’s father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all died before their sixtieth birthdays, so Ryan, who is now forty-two, could be forgiven if he seemed like a man in a hurry. Tall and wiry, with a puff of wavy dark hair, he is nearly as well known in Washington for his punishing early-morning workouts as he is for his mastery of the federal budget. Asked to explain his opposition to Obama’s newly released budget, he replied, “I don’t have that much time.”
Ryan won his seat in 1998, at the age of twenty-eight. Like many young conservatives, he is embarrassed by the Bush years. At the time, as a junior member with little clout, Ryan was a reliable Republican vote for policies that were key in causing enormous federal budget deficits: sweeping tax cuts, a costly prescription-drug entitlement for Medicare, two wars, the multibillion-dollar bank-bailout legislation known as TARP. In all, five trillion dollars was added to the national debt. In 2006 and 2008, many of Ryan’s older Republican colleagues were thrown out of office as a result of lobbying scandals and overspending. Ryan told me recently that, as a fiscal conservative, he was “miserable during the last majority” and is determined “to do everything I can to make sure I don’t feel that misery again.”
In 2009, Ryan was striving to reintroduce himself as someone true to his ideological roots and capable of reversing his party’s reputation for fiscal profligacy. A generation of Republican leaders was gone. Ryan had already jumped ahead of more senior colleagues to become the top Republican on the House Budget Committee, and it was his job to pick apart Obama’s tax and spending plans. At the table in his office, Ryan pointed out the gimmicks that Presidents use to hide costs and conceal policy details. He deconstructed Obama’s early health-care proposal and attacked his climate-change plan. Obama’s budget “makes our tax code much less competitive,” he said, as if reading from a script. “It makes it harder for businesses to survive in the global economy, for people to save for their own retirement, and it grows our debt tremendously.” He added, “It just takes the poor trajectory our country’s fiscal state is on and exacerbates it.”
As much as he relished the battle against Obama—“European,” he repeated, with some gusto—his real fight was for the ideological identity of the Republican Party, and with colleagues who were content to simply criticize the White House. “If you’re going to criticize, then you should propose,” he told me. A fault line divided the older and more cautious Republican leaders from the younger, more ideological members. Ryan was, and remains, the leader of the attack-and-propose faction.
In a 2005 speech to a group of Rand devotees called the Atlas Society, Ryan said that Rand was required reading for his office staff and interns. “The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand,” he told the group. “The fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.” To me he was careful to point out that he rejects Rand’s atheism.
Ryan’s first significant policy fight came in 2004. As President George W. Bush campaigned for a second term, largely emphasizing counter-terrorism and national-security policies, Ryan laid the groundwork for the Republican agenda should Bush be elected. For the first time, Ryan had the chance to pursue some of the more daring libertarian ideas that had captivated him. As a thirty-four-year-old representative, he set out to privatize Social Security.
Two days after the speech, despite some desperate appeals by Republican pollsters, Ryan’s plan passed the House of Representatives, 235 to 193. Only four Republicans voted against it. Ryan told me that the class of Republicans elected in 2010 was transformational. “Usually, you get local career politicians who want to be national career politicians,” he said. “They’re more cautious. They’re more risk-averse. They’re more focussed on just reëlection.” He went on, “This crop of people who came up are doctors and dentists and small-business people and roofers and D.A.s. They’re not here for careers—they’re here for causes.”
Ryan had aligned himself with Cantor and the self-proclaimed Young Guns, who made life miserable for Boehner, their nominal leader. They were the most enthusiastic supporters of the Ryan plan, while Boehner had publicly criticized it. Cantor’s aides quietly promoted stories about Boehner’s alleged squishiness on issues dear to conservatives, and encouraged Capitol Hill newspapers to consider the idea that Cantor would one day replace Boehner. As the Republican negotiations with the White House fizzled in the summer of 2011, Barry Jackson, Boehner’s chief of staff and a veteran of the Bush White House and Republican politics, blamed not just Cantor, who in media accounts of the failed deal often plays the role of villain, but Ryan as well.