Commentary Magazine


The New Paul Ryan Is the Old Paul Ryan

Following the release of the budget deal Paul Ryan agreed to with Patty Murray, there will be talk of a shift in Ryan’s political principles. The deal is being framed by its authors as a model of pragmatism, which is a good indication that it will conform to the belief that a fair deal is one from which both sides come away equally unhappy.

Policywise, it certainly deviates from Ryan’s past budgets, and in fact there is plenty in this deal for conservatives to dislike–so much, in fact, that it gives us a clue as to why a seemingly pointless deal would be struck by the right’s generally bold reformer. The Politico story on the deal, headlined “The new Paul Ryan,” offers an opening set of paragraphs that manage to get virtually everything wrong, aside from the one kernel of truth smothered by the confusion:

The new Paul Ryan emerged this week.

The House Budget Committee chairman, who has spent years penning budgets fit for conservatives’ dreams, has morphed into a man willing to take modest steps.

The two-year budget agreement he rolled out with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) Tuesday evening is striking for its simplicity: It cuts the deficits by $23 billion, sets new higher spending levels for the next two years and replaces automatic spending cuts set to take effect in 2014.

But in abandoning his years-long quest to re-imagine American society and settling for a bipartisan deal, the Wisconsin Republican took the first steps to emerge as a House power center — a Republican willing to take baby steps to curb the nation’s trillions in debt, normalize the budget process and protect a Pentagon pilloried by cuts.

This is not a “new Paul Ryan,” but the kernel of truth is buried in that fourth paragraph in reference to Ryan emerging as a “House power center.” He is in fact far from the only “Republican willing to take baby steps to curb the nation’s trillions in debt, normalize the budget process and protect a Pentagon pilloried by cuts”–a fact that explains why conservatives have been so frustrated with their congressional representatives.

More importantly, however, these were absolutely not the “first steps” Ryan is taking toward becoming an institution within an institution, rather than a prospective conservative candidate for president. Ryan may still run for president, of course; though if he wants to do so as a moderate from Wisconsin he’ll have to compete with Chris Christie and Scott Walker, the presumptive favorites of the centrists (Christie) and Wisconsinites (Walker)–who are both superior retail politicians.

The truth is, most of Ryan’s career suggests he wants the gavel, not the veto pen. Such a career path, by definition, requires staying put. So the clearest evidence of Ryan’s aspirations was when he passed on running for the open Senate seat from Wisconsin long before he was asked to join the Romney campaign as vice presidential nominee:

“What matters to me is not the title. It’s my ability to impact policy,” Ryan said in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “It would take me, you know, 12 to 16 years in the Senate to get where I am in the House. I don’t want to be in Congress for the rest of my life.”

Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, has gained national prominence in recent months as the budget has become a central issue in Washington. In the last few days, he was contacted by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn about a possible Senate run.

But Ryan told the Journal Sentinel that he was able to make a quick decision because he never wanted to run for Senate. He is in a strong position to become chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee in 2013.

He is not chairman of Ways and Means, but he is quite obviously still the GOP’s point man on budgetary issues as chairman of the Budget Committee. His comment that he wants to impact policy and not be in Congress forever clearly left the door open to other jobs that fit that description–the presidency certainly among them. But Ryan was catapulted to the national stage in 2012 when he joined Romney’s ticket. He did not run for president himself that year, despite numerous entreaties from supporters on the right.

Yet his presence on that ticket did raise the prospect of having to make a choice. He was popular among conservative voters and donors, and had a certain claim to first-tier status as a presidential candidate if he wanted it since he served as the vice presidential nominee in the last cycle. Suddenly, he was presented with the opportunity to claim inheritance of the party’s “standard-bearer” designation, if not the next in line (which used to be an advantage in the GOP, but the very concept now raises suspicion on the right for its presumption of entitlement–and rightly so).

This budget deal was not negotiated by the New Paul Ryan. It was a natural step for the Old Paul Ryan to take because while it wasn’t in line with his other recent budgets, it follows his desire to shape the country’s fiscal course, which he likely considered the first casualty to the prevailing congressional stalemate. It was, however, his first such move since the 2012 presidential election. There is much consistency to Ryan’s compromise, which suggests his heart was with the gavel all along.

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