Rep. Paul Ryan, the fast-talking, number-crunching Republican from Wisconsin, caused a stir last week when he called out his own party for not offering Americans a substantive alternative to Democrats in this fall’s elections.
“They’re talking to their pollsters and their pollsters are saying, ‘Stay away from this. We’re going to win an election,’” Ryan said, speaking at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution.
Ryan, in the second of back-to-back high profile speeches touting his “Road Map” plan that proposes to make long-term entitlement spending solvent, lumped Republicans in with Democrats as having failed to talk seriously about the nation’s debt and deficit problem.
“Unfortunately, you know, when I jumped in the pool and encouraged other people to jump in the pool, we haven’t had many other folks swimming around. And that’s from both sides of the aisle, I would say,” Ryan said.
House Republican leadership aides downplayed the remarks.
Michael Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner, the Ohio Republican who figures to become House Speaker if the GOP regains control, said Boehner “has said that Rep. Ryan’s ‘Roadmap’ is a strong, long-term plan for conservative reform, and he thanked Rep. Ryan for offering it.”
In an interview with The Daily Caller, Ryan said he was not trying to embarrass his party or his party’s leadership, but acknowledged that in speaking twice last week – at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and then at Brookings – he was trying to fill a leadership vacuum within the GOP.
“We are a decentralized party right now from a leadership standpoint. We don’t have some obvious nominee, and who knows who that’s going to be. So I just feel like it’s important for some of us to step in and help define the moment,” Ryan said.
But he added: “I’m not calling my party out … I’m just adding ideas to the pile to try and move the debate forward.”
The 40-year old Ryan is a rising young star in the GOP. He has been named by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as one of her favorite conservative leaders, and is one of the few Republican lawmakers to hold his own in one-on-one debate with President Obama.
He is not without his critics on the right. Ryan’s conservative bona fides are viewed with skepticism by some who question why he voted for the $700 billion TARP bailout in the fall of 2008, as well as for auto bailouts and taxes on AIG bonuses in 2009. (Ryan explained these votes in an interview this past February).
And there is video of Fox News personality Glenn Beck attacking Ryan floating around the internet, though Beck’s criticisms resulted in Ryan going on his radio show the next day, explaining that what Beck had read about him was misquoted, and relating his political philosophy in full. Beck, in response, said: “I love you.”
Obama and his outgoing budget director Peter Orszag have both acknowledged Ryan’s plan as a serious one, though they also disagree with it and have elevated it in part so that partisan Democrats can use it as a punching bag in a year when, in fact, most Republicans are trying to say as little as possible about what they plan to do if they regain the majority.
Attacks on Ryan’s plan in February foreshadowed why the GOP has largely stayed away from coming too close to the ambitious vision.
“GOP draws up plan to kill Social Security,” said an e-mail from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, attempting to pin down GOP Senate candidates on whether they support Ryan’s plan.
Ryan’s plan would preserve benefits for Americans 55 and older and already in the entitlement system. For Americans 54 and younger and not yet in the system, he would create a voucher system for Medicare, and would allow them to invest part of their federal income tax into personal savings accounts that Ryan argues would produce far greater yields than the one to two percent that Social Security now yields for current workers, a rate he argues that will drop below 1 percent in the future.
Though Ryan has been mentioned by some as a possible GOP presidential candidate in the future, some top Republican operatives scoff at the idea and say he remains unknown to most Americans. And some who know Ryan well say his greatest ambition is to become chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which shapes tax policy, though even if Republicans took the House this fall that post would almost certainly go to the current ranking member on the committee, Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan.
Ryan said in the interview that he does not feel let down by his party, despite the fact that after having tried to promote his “Road Map” for over two years, it is still held at arms length by Boehner and other leading Republican lawmakers.
“There are parts of it that are well done. Other parts I’ve got some doubts about, as to how good of a policy it is,” Boehner said just last week. His spokesman, Steel, said that Boehner’s concerns revolve around how Ryan’s plan deals with the child tax credit and “the proposal to replace the corporate tax with a transfer tax.”
Ryan said the GOP will produce a comprehensive platform after the end of summer, once the results of their “America Speaking Out” program — which is soliciting opinions from every day Americans — are in.
“There is a belief that let’s put details out there in the fall, when people are really beginning to pay attention. So I’m not disappointed because I know a lot is coming in the very near future,” Ryan said.
“Nobody pays attention to politics in the summer where I come from. So it’s really, ‘Let’s put this out there when people are paying attention,’ not, ‘Let’s put it out there when there’s not enough time to scrutinize it,’” he said. “We want to have a serious and intense conversation with Americans, and we want to do it at a time when we know they’re going to be focused and paying attention.”