WASHINGTON — In introducing Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate, Mitt Romney brought to his side one of the GOP’s young conservative leaders, maybe altered the contours of a struggling campaign, sharpened the choice facing voters in November — and put the size and role of government squarely at the center of the debate.
The selection of Ryan, the chief architect of the Republican Party’s plan for tax and spending cuts and an advocate of reshaping the Medicare program of health insurance for retirees, was an effort to reset the race with President Barack Obama after a withering assault on Romney by Democrats.
The decision instantly made the campaign seem bigger and more consequential. It was intended to galvanize the Republican base and represents a clear tactical shift by Romney, who until now had been singularly focused on weak job growth since Obama took office.
Who is Paul Ryan?
Even before Wisconsin sent him to Congress, he was meticulously carving a path that seemed to point only upward.
As a young Capitol Hill staffer, Ryan impressed Republican lawmakers with his hustle and intellectual curiosity. He blended quickly with an elite crop of conservative thinkers. By his 30s, he was a congressman on his way to becoming a GOP name brand with his push-the-edge budget proposals.
Ryan’s climb reached new heights Saturday.
“There are a lot of people in the other party who might disagree with Paul Ryan,” Romney said in announcing his running mate. “I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t respect his character and judgment.”
When Ryan bounded onto the stage to join Romney, against a backdrop of a retired battleship, the USS Wisconsin, he carried a generational message; at 42, he is 23 years younger than Romney and is the same age as Romney’s oldest son. Neither man has military experience or much background in foreign policy. (In fact, this the first presidential election in 80 years in which no one on either ticket has served in the military. The last time that happened was 1932, before the United States helped win World War II and became a military superpower.)
Romney, a Mormon, and Ryan, a Catholic, also represent a new era in presidential politics: Neither is a Protestant.
The announcement, which had been kept secret by the Romney campaign until the final hours, opened a weekend tour of swing states that is to continue today in North Carolina and Wisconsin. The candidates and their families are traveling together to showcase the new partnership, which they branded “America’s Comeback Team.”
For Romney, the decision is one of the boldest moves of his presidential candidacy, which has been guided by a do-no-harm strategy. It promised to energize conservatives, who had been eagerly lobbying for Ryan and who see his budget as the key to unlocking the economy’s potential for growth.
“The commitment Mitt Romney and I make to you is this,” Ryan said, smiling broadly during much of his address in Norfolk, Va. “We won’t duck the tough issues; we will lead. We won’t blame others; we will take responsibility. And we won’t replace our founding principles; we will reapply them.”
A Washington insider
Ryan, who has spent the last 14 years representing a southern Wisconsin district that runs from the shores of Lake Michigan through farm country south of Madison, grew up in Janesville and still lives just down the block from where he spent his boyhood. His father, a lawyer, died of a heart attack when Ryan was a teenager. It’s why Ryan is a fitness buff, leading fellow lawmakers through grueling, early morning workouts and pushing himself through mountain climbs.
That same intensity propelled him on the political front, too. He was first exposed to Congress as a summer intern. With an economics degree in hand, Ryan worked his way through committee staff assignments, a prominent think tank and top legislative advisory roles until opportunity arose with an open seat from his home turf. He leveraged Washington connections, local ties forged through the family construction business and the backing of anti-abortion groups en route to his surprisingly comfortable victory.
“One of the first lessons I learned was, even if you come to Congress believing in limited government and fiscal prudence, once you get here you are bombarded with pressure to violate your conscience and your commitment to help secure the people’s natural right to equal opportunity,” Ryan wrote in a 2010 book.
Critics question Ryan’s own consistency. They note that he backed a costly prescription drug benefit during Republican George W. Bush’s presidency that added strain to the Medicare budget, which Ryan touted at the time as “one of the most critical pieces of legislation” enacted since he joined Congress. He said in a June interview with The Associated Press that he took a “defensive” vote to ward off a more expensive Senate version. More recently, Ryan served on a bipartisan presidential debt commission but balked at its report because a tax increase was on the menu of options.
And Ryan has been a double-edged sword for Romney. The congressman’s endorsement of Romney came at a critical stage of the GOP primaries, giving him a boost in the Wisconsin race that effectively buried Romney’s final threat. But it also meant Romney was embracing the Ryan-sponsored budget proposal that Democrats fiercely target as painful to the poor and elderly.
Still, the square-jawed congressman is viewed as a bridge between the buttoned-up GOP establishment and the riled-up tea party movement.
In fact, it took time for Ryan’s own party to get fully behind his ideas. A few years ago, when Ryan first proposed dramatic changes to entitlement programs like Medicare, some in the GOP were skittish because Democrats pounced on the plans as undermining the health program accessed by millions of retirees.
The two men share an easy rapport and a love of PowerPoint presentations and policy details.
In choosing his running mate, Romney was looking to elevate a presidential race with a candidate most likely to provide the biggest jolt. It is a gamble, his aides acknowledged, but one they believe is far less risky than Sen. John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin four years ago. Several advisers said that as the author of the party’s central budgetary approach, Ryan helped make their campaign look “big,” after months of running a race remarkably absent of specific policy proposals.
But in making his choice, Romney took political ownership of a budget that even some Republicans worry could be a liability in November.
Advisers said Saturday that Romney had called Ryan with his offer on Aug. 1, almost immediately upon arriving home from a trip to Britain, Israel and Poland. That detail, which was confirmed by an associate close to Ryan, deflated speculation that Romney made his choice in reaction to an outcry that broke out last week, most notably on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, which argued forcefully on behalf of Ryan.
The Romney-Ryan campaign now moves into a critical period leading to their nomination at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., at the end of the month. Romney’s standing in several battleground states has fallen over the summer, after an aggressive effort by the Obama campaign to define him on their terms. Republicans hoped the vice presidential announcement would start the race anew, as well as help make Ryan’s native Wisconsin more competitive.
Obama, who has frequently sparred with Ryan, waved to reporters as he left the White House on Saturday but did not answer questions about his Republican rivals. But his advisers said he was surprised by the decision. His campaign and the Democratic Party seized on the choice and sought to define the Republican ticket in stark terms, as two men who would strip health coverage for retirees and favor the wealthy.
But Ryan will face questions about his readiness to be president. He has no foreign policy experience and has not spent significant time in the private sector, but the Romney campaign is counting on his youthful charisma and intellect to sustain him through a bruising presidential campaign.
“He had two decisions to make: governing or political, and bold or comfortable,” Karl Rove, the Republican strategist, said Saturday. “And he decided to go governing and bold.”
Romney’s rapport with Ryan was on display again on Saturday as they locked arms after walking out to the soaring music of the “Air Force One” film soundtrack. Romney wore a tie without jacket and Ryan wore a jacket without a tie.
As the campaign goes on, their partnership could be tested by how powerfully Romney is willing to embrace the Ryan plan for an economic overhaul, and how willing Ryan is to modulate his views for Romney’s political needs.
For now, their rapport stirred the crowd. “There is an energy there between them,” said Joyce Brittingham, 83, who said she was struck by Ryan’s youthfulness. “I think of George Bush, the way he ran upstairs all the time,” she said of the 43rd president.
Keith Freeman, the 51-year-old chairman of a local chapter of the tea party, detected a level of comfort that he has not seen between Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. “The way they look at each other when they talk,” he said. “There is no stiffness. They are comfortable.”
Romney, who is not known for his warmth, patted Ryan on the back 10 times at the campaign rally. When Ryan finished his remarks, Romney whispered a word into his ear. “Perfect,” he said.
About Paul Ryan
Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is a fit (former physical trainer) 42-year-old policy wonk with a relaxed and noncombative demeanor. He has become a superstar, a (polarizing) lightning rod and the new identity of the Republican Party. But a recent poll — before Ryan set about introducing himself to the nation Saturday at a campaign rally — found that a majority of the public didn’t know him.
Born: 1970, Janesville, Wis.
Education: Bachelor’s in economics, political science, Miami University of Ohio, 1992.
Family: Married, with three children; they are Roman Catholic.
1992: Intern to U.S. Sen. Bob Kasten, R-Wis.
1993-95: Speechwriter, adviser for Empower America, a conservative pressure group.
1995-97: Legislative aide to U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan.
1996: Speechwriter for Jack Kemp during his GOP vice presidential campaign.
1998-present: U.S. representative from Wisconsin, currently the House Budget Committee chairman; drafted the House GOP budget plan that would cut discretionary spending and overhaul Medicare and Medicaid.
Sources: McClatchy-Tribune News Service, The Associated Press, The Washington Post