Handsome, precious Paul Ryan, six-term Republican from the safe-as-apple-pie Janesville, Wisconsin, has fallen into a pout that worries his friends and entertains his enemies in the family feud that is the House GOP.
Ryan, 40, is supposed to be the bullet-proof numbers guy, ranking on the House Budget Committee, who is eager to take the chairmanship in the new Congress following the promised wave election; he is supposed to be the gifted ingénue who spent these last years in the minority bent over his spread sheets while he tweaked his grindingly wonkish genius of 2008, “A Roadmap for America’s Future.”
Instead, the Paul Ryan talked about these days on the Hill is withdrawn, conflicted, chagrined, and unavailable. And most importantly, he was missing in action last week at the ballyhooed Republican roll-out of “ The Pledge to America” in a Virginia hardware store.
Why was Ryan a no-show? Ryan’s flacks claim his absence was a scheduling problem, which is a deliberately uncreative excuse. Ryan’s allies say he skipped the event because he’s genuinely stumped about why the leadership ignored his celebrated “ Roadmap” that lays out a utopia in which America would solve health care, Social Security, taxes and jobs with Leprechaun dust and diligence. Nothing of Ryan’s years of homework is to be found in the “Pledge,” and the absence is so obvious that the whispering is that Ryan is either in fresh disfavor or worse, self-exile.
“He’s been very coy,” says an ally. “He’s not talked in about a month. He’s caught in the middle. He doesn’t know what to do. They ignored his Roadmap.”
Another ally is more mocking: “His scene got left on the cutting room floor.”
Says another observer: “Boehner, Cantor and McCarthy didn’t think as much of his ‘Roadmap’ as the (Wall Street) Journal does. (They think) it’s a ‘Roadmap’ to the minority.”
One critic says of Ryan’s relationship with Boehner, “He wants more love from Daddy.”
Ryan has cause to believe he has fallen in stature in the Republican Conference. John Boehner not only did not ask for Ryan’s help on the “Pledge,” but also Boehner’s flacks claim that the boss correctly handed the construction of the “Pledge to America” to a member who pulled off the pretentious gimmick of “Listening to America”—the two-term California back-slapper Kevin McCarthy, a man not known for policy cogitation of any sort. In fact, the general suspicion is that the document was cooked by a Boehner flack named Brian Wild, whose mission was to heat the stew—“we go forward now with optimism”—until it disappeared into instantly inedible, forgettable jargon.
One critic says of Ryan’s relationship with Boehner: “He wants more love from Daddy.”
The “Pledge” stunt is not Ryan’s only problem with Boehner and the Republican team. There is also the fiasco of the recent vanity publication, “Young Guns,” co-authored with the same schmoozer McCarthy and the big money man in the leadership, Whip Eric Cantor. The book is a sluggish presentation of the innocuous and the inane. Sipping what we are told are Diet Cokes and bottled water, Cantor says to Ryan, “We’ve got to reconnect and inspire the American people.” Ryan replies to Cantor, “The American people still love the American idea.” McCarthy contributes the factoid, “We have four million more government jobs in America than manufacturing jobs.” Several dozens of these heart-stopping exchanges create the impression that a colloquy of congressional stars is not unlike the Jonas Brothers discussing what they got each other for their birthdays.
• John Avlon: The Comedian Political Takeover • Philip K. Howard: Manifesto for a New PoliticsNot surprisingly, Paul Ryan is said to be in deep despair over the fact, suddenly revealed, that “Young Guns” is hack work and that, in the videos and still photos, he has been exposed as a trivial faceman.
“Ryan is embarrassed by the whole thing,” reports a close observer, not a foe. “He shouldn’t have done that. He made a mistake. He did Greta (Greta van Sustern show on Fox News Channel) to put a happy face on this thing.”
“He caved on TARP, he caved on the Roadmap, poor Paul Ryan,” measures a conservative Republican, summarizing correctly that Ryan voted with Boehner and Cantor on the infamous and Mark-of-Cain TARP of 2008; and that Ryan’s “Roadmap” is an irritation to the Conference, the tedious work of an acolyte who tries to outshine his professor as if politics is a spelling-bee. “The book (“Young Guns”) was Cantor’s and McCarthy’s idea. Ryan is ashamed.”
There is yet a deeper problem for Ryan, and it may also be pushing him into this unusual sullenness. Many Republican wags, such as David Frum and Erick Erickson, are already onto the Boehner paint-by-numbers game of the “Pledge.” The document is worse than hollow, because it illustrates that the Republican ambitions are not anything about policy or philosophy or even passion. They are about conquest on K Street and dividing up the plunder of majority. The sprightly rumors of Boehner’s lassies—“He enjoys looking at women. He’s a guy,” says a companion—are a tawdry exaggeration that Boehner and Cantor treat their ascendancy as deserving of booty. More, there are rumors from Wall Street that point to the slow-tongued Cantor and hint of challenges, double-crosses, coups. You scoff? Why?
How can guileless Paul Ryan hope to make his way in the frat house melodrama of the Republican ranks between the faint-heartedness of Boehner, the deceptions of Cantor, the shallowness of McCarthy? You begin to see why Ryan is said to be sulking like a teen who can’t get the keys to the car.
Conor Sweeney, a spokesman for Ryan, disputes the notion that he’s not on board with the Pledge. “Congressman Ryan strongly supports the House Republicans' Pledge to restrain the growth of government, spur job creation, and reform Congress. On the Pledge, your sources are mistaken: Ryan helped draft the Preamble, offered direct input on the spending cuts, and was an active participant in its introduction (with several TV/radio interviews in strong support of the Pledge last Thursday). There is no question both parties must do more to address the looming debt crisis and the shredding of our social safety net.”
As for the Young Guns, Sweeney says: “Again your sources are mistaken. Ryan has joked about the name 'Young Guns'—a name that stuck following a 2007 Weekly Standard feature on Cantor, McCarthy and Ryan by Fred Barnes. Ryan remains firmly committed to the continued effort to rededicate the Republican Party to its principles, supporting a new wave of reformers to help tackle our nation's most pressing fiscal and economic challenges.
Still, an adversary knocks Ryan for his willingness to join the Cantor and McCarthy “Young Guns” farce and at the same time to yearn for the blessing of the weakling Boehner. “They’ve issued a pledge and didn’t put out a list of people who took the pledge. Who’s taken your pledges, you and your boyfriends? Why not? They only care about themselves.”
A friend of Ryan’s remarks with irony, “Ryan’s not broken with Boehner. He’s just risk-averse, and I don’t know why. He got burned. He’s with everybody now.”
A Republican member looks past the current backbiting to the supposed GOP Majority next year. “They’ve all been trying to be leaders, speakers, now they’ve got there. Look out to April and May, if they don’t have it together, they will have to borrow more money, and the fighting will start again. They can’t see the forest.”
A Wall Street economist judges, “The Republicans will be bailing out the regional banks by next summer.”
Republican conservatives who read Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk, rather than the Club for Growth’s materialist sonnets or the dynamic poison of the Crossroads GPS attack ads, judge the “Pledge” bluntly and defiantly, like raising a war drum in Sherwood. “It’s the cesspool of Rousseau, a libertarian cloak. No mention of earmarks. Of immigration. We hear Boehner wanted the war left out. They say America is an ‘idea.’ They’re idiots. America is an inheritance.”
America, William Bradford’s inspiring image of the “city on a Hill,” is preparing to receive news of the new bosses of the GOP, which is said to be why the markets are rallying, anticipating a Republican House, a filibuster frozen Senate, and a gridlocked Washington. Paul Ryan, spoiled, sullied and now educated by the court intrigue, prepares the Budget Committee that is soon to be his for more pledges, debts and disappointments.