Ryan shoots at stubborn GOP orthodoxy
WASHINGTON—As Congress hurtled toward a government shutdown in the fall of 2013, Rep. Paul Ryan looked around at fellow Republicans who were agitating to shutter national parks, federal agencies and Head Start programs.
“This can’t be the full measure of our party and our movement,” Ryan writes of that moment in his new book, released today. “If it is, we’re dead and the country is lost.”
Such moments of raw frustration pepper Ryan’s “The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea,” a book as much about his front-row seat as Republicans’ favorite budget wonk as it is about his political future. Ryan is considered a contender for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.
The book could function both as a fresh campaign-style introduction to readers and a playbook for his party in Congress. In sometimes bracing language, the failed 2012 vice presidential nominee criticizes members of his own party for pushing politically popular ideas over the advice of policy experts.
While there also is plenty of partisan criticism of President Barack Obama and his Democratic allies—he calls the Obama administration “lawless”—the book’s personal revelations are the ones that could soften his image as a hard-nosed budget negotiator.
In his straightforward, Midwestern style, Ryan writes in detail about his father, who struggled with alcohol addiction and at one point checked himself into an in-patient treatment program.
A few years later, the younger Ryan found his father dead at age 55 in his home. The future congressman was still a high school sophomore.
“While he certainly tried to fight it, my dad’s addiction eventually won out,” Ryan writes. “Over time, it made him more distant, irritable and stressed. Before I lost him to a heart attack, whiskey had washed away some of the best parts of the man I knew.”
Some of the candor is rare in political memoirs.
He acknowledges, for example, his communication problems in explaining his budget ideas, which House Republicans’ campaign arm encouraged candidates to disavow and left Ryan feeling “ostracized.”
While Ryan has faced criticism from Democrats who say he would like to strip social services and make changes to Social Security, Ryan writes that he saw the benefits and importance of the programs in his life. When his father died, he writes, he received Social Security survivor benefits that allowed him to pay for college. Ryan writes that critics distort his plan.
The book also takes on the tea party-fueled wing of his party, which has seen its influence grow since the 2010 elections but has brought with it a mixed record for governing.
For instance, Ryan singles out the government shutdown in the fall of 2013. Led by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, tea partyers refused to continue funding the government unless the president agreed to repeal his signature health care law—a proposition that was never going to happen. As a result the government shuttered for 16 days and the Republican brand took a massive hit in voters’ eyes.
Ryan recalls being summoned back to the Capitol from a dinner with his cousin. House Speaker John Boehner wanted to meet with his inner-circle. Boehner was already smoking when Ryan arrived, and the budget chief recognized that as a bad sign.
Ryan tried to sway fellow conservatives to drop demands that would prompt a shutdown. “It was a suicide mission,” Ryan writes, but one that many members were unwilling to write off for fear outside tea party groups would deem them squishy.
In a separate, earlier episode, Ryan says he joined a 2001 meeting with then-Vice President Dick Cheney to talk about what the new Bush administration should prioritize. Ryan said he made a two-minute case for Social Security reform, saying that a budget surplus had created a huge opportunity.
Cheney, as Ryan tells it, dismissed that idea as though it was an annoying mosquito, not a policy option.
Ryan also laments that he and 2012 running mate Mitt Romney captured just 17 percent of non-white voters. He says Republicans need to broaden their appeal if they ever want to capture the White House.
But he acknowledges problems with how he and Republicans have been talking to voters.
Ryan recounts being confronted at a county fair by a Democrat who objected to his frequent talk of “the makers” and “the takers,” or the divide between those who pay more taxes than the ones who receive government benefits such as unemployment insurance, Social Security and Medicare. Ryan now realizes that during that confrontation, he had been insulting voters without realizing it.