Regardless of the outcome of this year’s presidential election, Mitt Romney has greatly elevated the stature and the reach of Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee and this year’s GOP vice presidential nominee. And though the presidential election is extremely close — indeed, though Barack Obama may well have the upper hand — one can’t help but speculate about the role Ryan would play in a Romney White House, and in the larger conservative movement.
For much of his tenure in Congress, Ryan has devoted himself to crafting ambitious policy initiatives that barely saw the light of day. During the Bush administration, the young Wisconsin congressman pressed for an overhaul of Medicare that would create a prescription drug benefit while also implementing a system designed to contain cost growth. In the end, crucial portions were abandoned due to opposition from gun-shy congressional Republicans as well as congressional Democrats. Ryan was also one of the most enthusiastic champions of revamping Social Security by introducing voluntary personal accounts, an effort that arguably boomeranged by contributing to the dramatic Democratic comeback in the 2006 congressional elections.
The boomerang kept going; it was President Obama’s health reform effort that gave Ryan a new lease on life. Together with Senator Tom Coburn and a handful of other conservative allies, he offered a right-of-center proposal for coverage expansion. Though Ryan’s plan wasn’t embraced by most members of the Republican caucus, it established him as a thought leader on the right. After Republicans won the House in 2010, Speaker John Boehner named Ryan chairman of the House Budget Committee, a role he used to great effect. Rather than stick to setting broad goals and priorities, Ryan devised a budget proposal that set the agenda for conservatives for years to come on entitlement reform. At the time, many of them saw Ryan’s call for a market-oriented overhaul of Medicare as politically suicidal. And indeed, President Obama waged war on Ryan’s proposal, devoting an entire speech in April 2011 to attacking it. The president went so far as to characterize Ryan’s agenda as “thinly veiled Social Darwinism.”
But one of the more striking aspects of Ryan’s career has been his frequent though largely unheralded efforts to reconcile his free market ideals with the demands of social justice. Back in 2011 the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops offered sharp criticisms of the Fiscal Year 2012 budget resolution passed by House Republicans. Though many conservatives dismissed the criticisms as entirely predictable, Ryan sent an open letter to Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, the president of the Conference, which made the case that the budget resolution is very much in keeping with Catholic social teaching, arguing that “human dignity is undermined when citizens become passive clients living on redistributions from government bureaucracies.” To make his case against enervating bureaucracies, Ryan cited the words of no less an authority than Pope John Paul the Great, who warned against “the loss of human energies” and the “inordinate increase of public agencies” that had accompanied the rise of the “social assistance state.” Far from undermining the social safety net for America’s most vulnerable citizens, Ryan argued that his approach would strengthen it by placing it on a sound fiscal footing. Suffice it to say, Ryan’s intervention didn’t satisfy all or even many of his critics among Catholic social thinkers, but it represented a sincere and respectful effort at starting a dialogue.
In a similar vein, Ryan reached out to Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), one of the most well-regarded liberals in Congress, to craft a Medicare reform proposal that could pass muster with at least some Democrats. Though Ryan and Wyden disagreed passionately about the wisdom of Obama’s health reform — Ryan was strongly opposed and Wyden strongly in favor — they came together on a plan that aimed to contain cost growth in Medicare through the use of market competition. In deciding to work with Wyden, Ryan abandoned his original proposal for Medicare reform, which envisioned phasing out a Medicare public option. Ryan also agreed to a higher growth target, a concession that meant that he would have to find savings elsewhere in the federal budget. Many Democrats, meanwhile, were sharply critical of Wyden for having cooperated with Ryan, despite the fact that Wyden had made it clear he opposed a Medicare overhaul that also entailed repealing the Affordable Care Act. Ryan’s cooperation with Wyden did not usher in an era of bipartisan comity. It did, however, represent a willingness to make significant concessions in service to the larger cause of creating a more sustainable social safety net.