One thing I’ve always appreciated about Paul Ryan is that he looks you straight in the eye when talking about matters of policy and politics — though clearly he enjoys the former more than the latter. Whether you agree or disagree with Ryan, it is impossible, once you’ve met him, to doubt his sincerity, his good intentions, and the fact that his opinions are grounded in knowledge and introspection that are uncommon in most Americans, much less most members of Congress.
If it sounds like I’m something of a Paul Ryan fan, I plead guilty; I have been ever since meeting him in 1999 during his first campaign to represent Wisconsin’s 1st congressional district, including his hometown of Janesville, in Congress. He is the same person today that he was 15 years ago, just with a higher profile, particularly since being selected as Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential running mate, and a lot more responsibility as chairman of the House Budget Committee — and likely future chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, which is responsible for setting American tax policy.
I met with Congressman Ryan last week while he was in Colorado to discuss his newly released book, The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea. In the first several chapters, Ryan describes his path into politics and his youth, including the impact of his father’s early death and his choice to “sink or swim” after he found his dad’s body. He provides some thoughts about the 2012 campaign and explains how he approaches tough votes in Congress. You feel as if you learn the core of the man, which includes a decided discomfort with the game of politics.
Paul Ryan is a creature of small-town Wisconsin. He is an intellectual and an avid outdoorsman, a problem solver, a devoted father, husband, and member of his community — and he prefers all of these roles to the brain damage and spinelessness and shenanigans characteristic of political life inside the Beltway. He also recognizes that, at least right now, Washington, D.C., is where he can make the biggest difference.
The rest of the book is devoted to laying out a path forward, one that translates Ryan’s vision of the “American idea” — which he defines in brief as “a way of life made possible by our commitment to the principles of freedom and equality and rooted in our respect for every person’s natural rights.” — into specific policy preferences aiming at encouraging freedom, economic growth, and a beneficial culture while reducing poverty, the size of government, and the racial and economic divisions within a not-as-United-as-we-should-be States of America.
Here’s a lightly edited transcript of our twenty-five-minute on-the-record conversation, which (prior to enjoying some good Thai food and talking about everything from politics to family to noodling) covered a range of questions inspired by The Way Forward:
Ross Kaminsky: Looking back, how do you feel President Obama has treated you and do you take it personally?
Paul Ryan: I don’t take it personally; I think it’s who he is. I think he’s an ideologue. I think he’s a Chicago-school “the ends justify the means” — and by “Chicago-school” I don’t mean University of Chicago — liberal Progressive. So I actually don’t take this stuff personally because I just think that’s the kind of politics and ideology he practices.
RK: Do you still think the Tea Party is a “growing, enduring movement,” as you put it in your book?
PR: I do. I think it’s indispensable. I look at my own experience. When I started with my Roadmap, which took me a year to write when I finally got to the Budget Committee — we were in the minority — Social Security reform, Medicare reform, health care reform, tax reform, cut a lot of spending, put a lot of spending caps in place, balance the budget, pay off the debt — I was an apostate. I was an outlier. I was pushed to the side by the party, by what people would refer to as the “establishment,” because they thought I was going to doom the party. And to this day, candidates are getting Medicare ads run against them because of votes I made people take in Congress, because of premium support for Medicare. Which is the way to reform Medicare — that’s patient-centered private reform of health care.
Because of those actions, because of votes I have made, Cory Gardner [Colorado’s 4th district] is running against this right now. They’re running these ads against Mike Coffman [Colorado’s 6th district]. Tom Cotton [Senate challenger in Arkansas] is getting his head kicked in on these Medicare votes. I still think it’s worth it because we’ve made a stand, and the lesson I got was the party will never want to take a risk. They’ll never go against what the consultant class thinks is the smart, smooth, easy, non-risk way to go. But if you want to capture the imagination of the public, if you want to be principled and if you want to have a mandate, you have to tell people what you believe and what you’re going to do. Even if it might be risky. Do it in an intelligent way; don’t be foolish. But you have moral obligation to do this.
I started this thing with eight co-sponsors. Because of the Tea Party we passed it four years in a row. So I went from ’08 being ostracized and told by my party that I was dooming our chances, having the party tell candidates to stay away from it, to picking up the phone and getting random candidates running in 2010 saying, “I just endorsed your plan. Now help me defend it.” A lot of these Tea Party candidates ran in 2010 and 2012 and we got 235 votes for doing this, for turning Medicare into a premium support program. [RK: The Ryan budget passed the House with 235 votes in 2011 and 228 votes in 2012.] I give the Tea Party the total credit for that because it gave us a more courageous, more principled fiscally conservative majority than we would have otherwise had.
RK: You thought of 2012 as a referendum on the “American Idea,” which your book is about. When you didn’t win that election what did you conclude about whether Americans still care about the “American Idea”?
PR: I thought the election was about that, but I don’t think everybody thought the election was about that. I thought Obama did a pretty good job of controlling the narrative by caricaturing Mitt Romney, by making it about class warfare, making him out as a guy who doesn’t care about you. They pounded him for five months unanswered as a heartless Bain guy. So I think [the American Idea] was probably not in the forefront of people’s minds when they went to the polls on Election Day. I think the incumbent ran a smart campaign to basically destroy the other guy and they won by default.
The lesson we should take is that for the left, identity politics has worked. They took identity politics and combined it with twenty-first century technology to great devastating effect. We cannot play identity politics. We need to reject that. We shouldn’t go down that road. They focus on the emotions of fear, envy, and anxiety. We need to do the opposite. We need to be inclusive. We need to focus on aspirations, on opportunity, and on growth…much like Ronald Reagan did. We need to show what our principles are, how when applied to the problems of the day offer better solutions that are more realistic. And we need to raise the stakes of the election to truly make it about the “American Idea.” I don’t think the last election was enough of that.
With an open seat, we’ll have more of a likelihood of having a “choice-based” election. I think that whoever their candidate is, whether it’s Hillary or Elizabeth Warren or whoever, it’s basically a third Obama term.
RK: Please, God, let it be Elizabeth Warren.
PR: [Chuckling a bit.] But we have to win with a conservative. We have to make sure we have the right kind of victory. Not just the win-by-default and shoot down the middle of the fairway and split the difference. We need the right kind of victory so we have the moral authority and the mandate and a majority to fix this mess before it gets out of control. I don’t want us to be tax collectors for the welfare state, managing America’s decline more efficiently. I want to get us on a different track and fix this country’s problems fast.
RK: Do you think the country is becoming more libertarian and, if so, how should the GOP deal with issues where there are differences within the coalition?
PR: I think the country is becoming more anti-Big Brother and anti-big government. That’s healthy to me. I think the country is seeing progressivism in practice and not liking it. That resistance manifests itself in different ways. Libertarianism is one of them. But I see libertarianism in perfect sync with the conservative movement. I see it as an important plank within the conservative movement. On probably eight out of ten issues, I consider myself on the libertarian side. With technology these days, we have to be smarter about our civil liberties and protecting our privacy because technology could take it away from us without us knowing it. So that’s one issue.
I’m a pro-life person; I feel strongly about that. But I think that is perfectly in keeping with libertarianism because I believe it’s fighting for the rights of an individual. Some people will see it in a different way. No problem. Fine. Let’s agree to disagree and accommodate each other’s views on this in a civil way and stay in this big tent party. We agree on economic liberty. We agree on our founding principles. We agree on equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome. We agree on natural rights — whether as God-given or at least as individually owned rights versus government-granted rights. Those are the things we agree on. That’s nine-tenths of the equation right there. So we ought to be part of a big movement together.
RK: A question from my father: You put out a big plan right before an important special election in New York…
PR: Yeah, that was my Medicare plan. They blamed me for the loss.
RK: Right. So do you consider the election calendar when releasing your concepts for changes to the “safety net”?
PR: [With a laugh] Not in the least…I certainly didn’t then. Everybody blames me for that woman losing that seat — which we got back with a guy named Chris Collins — because of my Medicare bills. I don’t even think about that stuff.
RK: So do you expect changes of the sort that you normally propose — which I generally like — to be political winners?
PR: Over time I do.
RK: My dad fears they energize the Democrat base.
PR: They do. I think he’s right. But you’ll never get anything done if you’re always worried about that. You have to start with ideas that are the manifestation of your principles, applied to the problems of the day. Those ideas will always be controversial. Progressives will hate them. They’ll be attacked no matter what you do. So you start with an idea that’s going to be controversial, you try to apply the idea in as smart a way as you can, anticipating the attacks that will come. You have debates. You defend the idea. And then eventually you normalize that idea so you can effectuate it, so you can put it into practice.
When I started with the Medicare reform — people still get ads run against them, people argue it cost us that seat in Buffalo — it is now to the point where CBO is saying “this is the smart way to go.” There are a couple of Democrats who will concede this is the way to go. It is an idea that has become normalized. It’s not the third rail it used to be. Medicare reform, especially now in contrast to Obamacare, is to me a political winner. I think we’ve moved it from controversial idea that has cost us some seats to a responsible, smart, market-driven approach that stands in far better light when contrasted against Obamacare.
RK: You talk about Bill Bennett saying that all the tax cuts in the world don’t matter if you don’t get the culture right. In this context, how do you define culture and what are the top couple of things that need to be done, and who does them?
PR: People, civil society, communities — not governments. I say this as a person, as a leader, not as a guy writing laws in Congress. What I talk about is a vibrant civil society where we have responsibilities placed back to us in our families, our communities, ourselves. I talk about the scourge of moral relativism, which is undermining and eating out our culture. And that is something that we as individuals and families and communities need to address. This isn’t a law you pass in Congress.
But I do believe there are areas where government can get out of the way, where government is causing harm, where government is blocking things. And that’s where we should remove the barriers that are making it harder for communities to thrive. I think the basic concept of Progressivism, which is government with no limiting principle, is a government that therefore enjoys no limits and seeks to take more and more space of society away from us…and displaces civil society, which makes our culture more coarse.
I think as conservatives in government, our goal is to get government back within its limits so that it does what it’s supposed to do effectively and efficiently and does it well, so that it frees up the space for the culture to heal itself. And then we as individuals and our communities — not government — need to do more to revive our culture: mentor kids, get involved in charities, be active in your community, through your church, through your Rotary Club, Cub Scouts, whatever you want to do.
RK: Keep in mind this question is coming from someone whose son’s middle name is Rand. What do you mean when you say we have duties to our neighbors? Doesn’t that risk making the difference between your argument and the left’s argument simply a matter of scale?
PR: I’m not an Objectivist; I’m a Catholic. So maybe we’re going to have a difference here. We have duties to our neighbors in our communities to help one another because if we don’t help fix problems and keep them from getting out of control, then there will be calls for more and more government. If we want to maintain our freedoms and the space to operate freely in our society, we need to help make sure that our communities are strong, and that means we have a duty to help one another in our communities. What Catholics call this is “subsidiarity,” which is a conservative term of focusing on communities, on local control, on fixing problems where they are, and not going up to the higher level of authority, including government, in conjunction with the notion of solidarity — that we’re all in this together. We do need to help each other out, but we do this voluntarily.
The critical issue here is that these are through voluntary associations: people giving of their own free will, and volunteering their time, their money, their attention is what help keep our communities glued and together and thriving so that we can enjoy our freedoms, so that we can keep our government limited, so that we can keep government in its proper space so we can have the rest of the space of society for ourselves. What I’m trying to articulate here is a vision of American life that is society-centered, based on collaboration, versus the Progressive vision of American life that is government-centered, based on coercion.
[RK: Ryan recently gave a speech at Hillsdale College’s Kirby Center going further into the contrast between the conservative and Progressive visions of America. You can read the speech in the current issue of Imprimis — a wonderful free monthly publication.]
RK Why did you feel a need to explain your votes for Medicare Part D and other programs that conservatives don’t like very much?
PR: Because they’re votes you wrestle with. And I think it’s important that people understand you don’t always get to take the vote you want to take. Sometimes you have to take the lesser of two evils.
The lesson I got out of that, number one, was leadership counts. Leadership determines the choices you have. What bill comes to the floor or what policy choices you have. Lesson number two is what things look like when you’re making these decisions. And sometimes — and good conservatives can disagree on this, [my thinking may be influenced by] my Catholic guilt — you have an obligation to try to push the outcome of a decision in a better way even if you get bloodied up, even if you look imperfect.
So, for instance, in [Medicare] Part D, we had an amendment that I brought to the floor…to have Health Savings Accounts. I shepherded this policy all along, I got forty-five conservatives to sign a letter for it. Ted Kennedy tried to put income caps on it and we headed that off. We had pure HSAs from the get-go, which was, at that time, my big push for health care. We got Medicare Advantage, which is a precursor to premium support, which is breaking up the fee-for-service monopoly…but in the new entitlement program the drugs were supposed to be in Medicare Advantage; instead they were on their own in a separate benefit. But the benefit wasn’t delivered through fee-for-service, through a government program, it was a premium-support benefit delivery system — private providers competing. So we had the seeds of market-based reforms for Medicare, not done in the way we wanted, but clearly a precursor to good Medicare reforms.
It was that or the Ted Kennedy-Chuck Grassley bill, which was just a government-run program, fee-for-service, a big budget buster…and they had the votes for both. And so when the president [George W. Bush] told me, “Look, Ryan, I’m going to sign a drug bill into law. The question is, am I going to sign the one that has the stuff you like in it, or am I going to sign the Senate bill? That’s your decision.” So I stewed on that for a while, gave it a lot of thought, and I basically decided, yeah, I could look really good just washing my hands of the situation, but my conscience would wear on me too much if I knew in doing so that the more statist approach went forward and we didn’t get the better approach, which I believe is already showing us how premium support can work…I have CBO giving me studies saying premium support is the way to go…I feel like we have evolved the Medicare debate from pushing grandma over the cliff to an idea that is normalized; I think we’re going to do it because Obamacare is not going to work.
So, the problem is you have to take a vote like that where it doesn’t look great, you certainly don’t look perfect, but you help improve the outcome even if you don’t look pure.
People question whether you’re dedicated to core principles or not…What conservatives who are elected need to do is explain what it is we’re trying to get, what exactly that horizon looks like, which is how we apply our principles and what those policies look like so we can show what we’re trying to get to. Sitting here in the suburbs of Denver, we can see Long’s Peak on the horizon. We need to say, “That is our destination. Here is what it looks like. Here is what limited government looks like, what a balanced budget looks like, what patient-centered health care looks like, what a reformed tax code looks like, what an energy policy looks like. Here’s what limited, effective government and constitutional principles being fulfilled look like…” If we don’t show that bigger goal, then the moves we make on a day-to-day basis— sometimes small incremental moves and sometimes big moves — for all people know we’re running in circles; we’re not fulfilling our horizon, our principles, and what we’re trying to get to.
You have to show that there’s a strategy. We’re just as dedicated to the principles as ever before, but sometimes in fulfillment of that strategy you have to use prudence; you have to deal with reality as it is, not as you wish things would be.
The dust jacket of The Way Forward calls Paul Ryan “the intellectual leader of the Republican Party,” a fair description, but one that also correctly suggests that the book is most likely to be appreciated by conservatives (and other non-leftists) who are interested in details of political philosophy and a big-picture view of our country’s ailments and the policy prescriptions to cure them.
It is not an election tell-all, nor a screed intended to rile up the right-wing or harangue Democrats. Indeed, Ryan’s book is reasoned and explained well enough that even the mainstream media is having a hard time criticizing it. If there is any downside (from a book sales point of view), it’s that the book honestly represents the demeanor and priorities of its author, an even-keeled Midwesterner more interested in inclusiveness than division, more focused on getting to the right answers than on throwing bombs at politicians of either party.
The fact that the United States has in critically important positions (especially regarding fiscal and tax policies) a man with such a clear vision for America, based on years of reading and thinking and seeing the actual impacts of (failed) Progressive policy versus (usually successful) pro-free market policy, gives me hope that, contrary to widespread current pessimism, today’s children might not be the first in our nation’s history to have less prosperous lives than their parents.
For that true sense of — if I may coin a phrase — hope and change, Paul Ryan’s The Way Forward is a welcome and valuable addition to our ongoing political conversation.