Waiting in the Wings to Be Chief G.O.P. Dealmaker
By MATT BAI
August 11, 2010
WASHINGTON -- As lawmakers head home this week for what remains of summer, one question transfixes Washington: Will Democrats lose control of the House and possibly even the Senate in November, or will they hang on to fragile majorities?
Whatever the outcome, though, another question looms large for the White House: What next?
Life will certainly be marginally easier for President Obama if his party holds on to the House (he won't have to endure a spate of needling investigations, for one thing), but either way, the days of legislating through one-party governance are most likely coming to an end. If the president is to accomplish anything significant between now and the 2012 election, he will probably have to find the kind of deal-making adversary that Bill Clinton had after Democrats lost power in 1994 -- a Newt Gingrich type who might bluster and brainstorm his way to compromise.
And this, perhaps, is where Paul Ryan becomes more significant.
Mr. Ryan, as you may have heard, is the Republican star of the moment. A 40-year-old from southeastern Wisconsin serving his sixth term in the House, Mr. Ryan has been getting a lot of attention for his "Roadmap for America's Future," an unusually austere proposal to vanquish the federal debt by, among other things, partly dismantling Social Security and Medicare as they currently exist.
Republicans admire the boldness of Mr. Ryan's vision, even if his proposals are a little too bleak for the campaign trail. "He's not saying the world's going to be full of butterscotch sundaes," is how Jeb Bush described the plan to me recently. "He's saying: 'Eat your broccoli. And then maybe you don't get to eat at all for a few days. You don't get steak -- ever.' "
Liberals have taken note of Mr. Ryan's road map, as well. Paul Krugman, the New York Times Op-Ed columnist, recently derided Mr. Ryan as a "flimflam man," arguing that the tax cuts in his plan would ultimately make the debt worse. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, meanwhile, has attacked several Republican candidates for praising the plan, accusing them of wanting to roll back entitlements.
Let's leave aside for now the debate over the viability of the road map, which, as a practical matter, doesn't stand a chance of being enacted as is, anyway. The more pertinent question is whether Mr. Ryan is the kind of guy who just wants to make a point -- or whether his road map represents the starting point in what could be a serious negotiation about entitlements and spending.
We tend to think of bipartisanship as cooperation among a few pragmatic principals in both parties who already agree on how to solve a particular problem. A good example is the recent bill on climate change advanced by the Democrats John Kerry and Joseph I. Lieberman with their Republican colleague Lindsay Graham, which stalled in the Senate.
But what President Clinton and Speaker Gingrich demonstrated in the mid-1990s is that meaningful bipartisan agreements can also be forged by fierce and ideologically opposed competitors who wrestle each other toward a tolerable consensus, as long as that consensus stands to benefit both parties politically.
Those two men agreed on little, having come of age on opposite sides of the cultural and political divide of the 1960s. What they shared, however, was a common desire to do big things and geeky, almost twisted delight in going through budgets line by line. In this way they managed to negotiate consequential deals to balance the federal budget and remake the welfare system.
Mr. Obama hasn't found that kind of useful nemesis on the right (his relationships with Republican leaders might best be described as estranged), and until now he hasn't really needed one. Mr. Ryan, of course, wouldn't be empowered to deal with the White House in the way that Mr. Gingrich was as a Republican speaker. But as the party's most public face on fiscal issues, there are reasons to think Mr. Ryan could become an influential emissary if the president is serious about assembling a coalition for a budget overhaul.
First, Democrats who know Mr. Ryan will tell you that he can have strident disagreements without being blindly partisan or personal. Among his social friends in Washington, Mr. Ryan counts Peter R. Orszag, the just-departed budget chief for the White House. On the president's debt-reduction panel, to which Republicans appointed him, Mr. Ryan has forged strong working relationships with several Democrats, including the co-chairman, Erskine B. Bowles, and the labor leader Andy Stern.
"My favorite kind of people in politics," Mr. Ryan said in an interview, "are people who have strongly held beliefs and fight for them. They're in politics for the right reason."
Second, Mr. Ryan appears to be the rare kind of guy who actually dreams of making Social Security solvent, rather than of using the issue to bludgeon opponents or get himself on television. While his own proposal for private investment accounts might be a deal-breaker for the White House, he identifies Social Security as an area where there is "clearly room for compromise" and says of his road map generally, "I'm trying to get the discussion to an adult level."
Finally, in Mr. Ryan, the president might well find a generational and temperamental peer, just as Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gingrich must have recognized in each other the same manic energy and grad-school nostalgia. Mr. Obama singled out Mr. Ryan at a visit with Republican House members last January, saying that he had read the road map and considered it a serious proposal. He joked then that while he had met Mr. Ryan's "beautiful family," he didn't want to hurt the congressman's political prospects by saying anything nice about him.
Mr. Obama and Mr. Ryan haven't spent much time together, but both men are cool-blooded, intellectual types who are struggling to articulate a way past the era of "childish things" that Mr. Obama talked about at his inauguration -- the governing unreality bequeathed to them by the boomers.
For his part, Mr. Ryan says he suspects the president is more of an ideologue and less of a dealmaker than Mr. Clinton was. But, he adds hopefully, "even ideologues have to bend to reality from time to time." November is coming, and the time to bend may soon be at hand.
"Washington vs. Paul Ryan"
- by WSJ Editorial Board Paul Ryan's vision "is a threat to the ideology of those like Mr. Krugman." ..."Ryan is really presenting Washington with a philosophical choice between the status quo of an ever-larger and ever-more indebted government and a plan to pay for the promises we've made while still preserving free markets and economic growth." "[Ryan Roadmap's] immediate virtue is that it gives leaders in both parties heartburn because it applies the fiscal honesty that everyone claims to favor. Taxpayers need someone like Mr. Ryan to expose the emperor's naked budget." read more
Ryan draws national praise and attacks
-by Stephanie Jones, Racine Journal Times "What Paul Ryan is doing is actually providing an alternative to what the Democrats are proposing and what they have done." Likewise, Jay Newton-Small, a Time Magazine political correspondent, said in a phone interview, "He is an interesting character in that he is one of the few ideas guys on the Republican side ... And his ideas are pretty bold." read more