Originally published in Official Artur Davis
I will offer the obligatory caveat: I know Paul Ryan from serving with him on two congressional committees during the eight years I spent in the House. It is not fair to call him a friend, at least not in the way human beings who aren’t politicians use that term, but I liked him a great deal. I liked the little things–when he engaged you in conversation, you had his attention and his eyes didn’t drift in search of a more powerful member, or a potential donor–and I admired the more consequential things, like his genuine smarts and the fact that when he spoke on the floor or in hearings, you heard the product of an active mind that didn’t need ghostwriting or lobbyist drafted talking points.
Frankly, I don’t know the politics of the pick. The Obama campaign is way too thrilled at this announcement to attribute it just to gamesmanship or wishfulness: they know that the Ryan budget plan has not polled well, that its realignment of Medicare unsettles seniors, and that to some independents (and at one point, Newt Gingrich) it looks more like ideological engineering than a response to our current bout of economic stagnation. A campaign whose allies just wrapped a woman’s death around Mitt Romney and Bain Capital, facts be damned, will not shrink from painting Ryan as a cold-blooded, Ayn Rand inspired radical who puts theory over people. (If you have never heard of the libertarian writer and polemicist for whom Ryan has expressed admiration, Democratic opposition researchers will endeavor to change that.)
My guess (and hope) is the Democratic attack will be so undisciplined that it is excessive and that Ryan, an imminently decent and pleasant man, looks to Americans nothing like the caricature that Democrats are about to paint. The campaigner who has won easily in a district Barack Obama carried has the raw ability to make a case that his budget really is a blueprint for a shared prosperity. He has flourished making that argument in settings more rigorous than the ritual anchor sit-downs that are coming, and he will not be intimidated by the skeptical, arched eyebrows of his interrogators, or by Joe Biden’s put-downs.
I also think Ryan can and will point out that an entitlement structure built for a population that rarely lived past seventy has to be refitted for a future where octogenarians are the fastest rising age demographic; that universal, one size fits all Medicare coverage has always been more a political bribe to sustain support than some solemn moral commitment; that government overpromising its capacities is itself immoral; and that the first casualties of an entitlement train-wreck would be the poor and the vulnerable, who most need the current compact to be amended so its best parts can survive.
My other hopes are that Paul Ryan’s reformer instincts aren’t just built around budgets. Conservatism needs to adopt education reform as a cause, not just as a wedge against the selfishness of teachers unions, but as the most effective instrument to reduce inequality. Conservatism needs not just to repeal Obamacare but to replace it with a market based correction to the inadequacies of the status quo. The political right has to reclaim legal immigration as a point of pride and to distance itself from overheated claims about “us” losing “our” culture: that means much less talk about “self-deportation” crusades against illegal immigrants, much more confidence in assimilation, much more focus on an immigration regime that privileges individual responsibility and families.
The guy I admired from across the aisle and sometimes chatted with gets all of the above, and may provide the center-right its most artful and effective political advocate. I think that Ryan knows that his party’s survival rests on conservatism growing and adapting to a changed economic world in a way that liberalism never has.
So, without minimizing the risk in claiming a space that Democrats have effectively attacked for years, I felt inspired seeing Paul Ryan rise from obscurity to the epicenter of politics in 24 hours. It’s an ascension that is well-earned: not one of his generational peers has used time as a lawmaker more seriously or more assertively. (The contrast with Obama–whose 12 uneventful years in the state and national Senate were spent running for, or exploring runs for, higher office–is palpable). If this ends well, a campaign that has been accused of running a prevent defense without being ahead has just made a serious down-payment on its party’s future.
A version of this essay originally appeared in the Recovering Politician on August 13, 2012