Republicans and Democrats seem to agree that Paul Ryan is a dyed-in-the-wool conservative who has made slashing the size of government the cause of his life.
That is the reason GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s choice of the Wisconsin congressman as his running mate has left the U.S. right giddy with excitement. It is also why Democrats are attacking Mr. Ryan as an ideologue who would hang the poor and seniors out to dry.
But a look at the 42-year-old career politician’s record suggests his stated fondness for the writings of Ayn Rand and Friedrich von Hayek has not always dictated his votes in Congress. While he may be one of the most conservative vice-presidential nominees ever, Mr. Ryan has betrayed a pragmatic streak and often hews to views of his swing district electors.
It is not in the interest of Republican or Democratic campaign strategists to draw attention to Mr. Ryan’s ideological impurity. Calling him a “severe conservative” fits the narrative each side seeks to build about the choice U.S. voters face in this election.
It is worth pointing out that the so-called budget hawk supported, among other things, the auto and bank bailouts, an expensive prescription drug program for seniors and vastly expanded federal role in education. That hardly makes him a rigid ideologue.
Many Republicans who voted for those policies have been labelled heretics and faced primary challenges from the right flank of the party. But Mr. Ryan seems to have gotten a pass from the conservative elite and Tea Party alike.
“Nobody’s going to be 100-per-cent pure,” explained Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a free market think tank in Washington. “But on the big issues of the day, Paul Ryan is where many Republicans and conservatives want the party to be.”
According to the latest annual ranking by National Journal, Mr. Ryan is only the 150th most conservative member of the House of Representatives. But New York Times statistics guru Nate Silver still ranks Mr. Ryan as the most conservative vice-presidential nominee with congressional experience since 1900.
He even edges out George W. Bush-era vice-president Dick Cheney.
“Mr. Romney chose as his running mate the ideological leader of the Republicans in Congress,” President Barack Obama said Monday at a campaign rally in Iowa. To be sure, Mr. Ryan’s budget proposals, which would chop the top marginal income tax rate to 25 per cent from about 36 per cent while eliminating unspecified deductions, would be a boon for the wealthy. The independent Tax Policy Center estimates those earning more than $1-million (all figures U.S.) a year would see their after-tax income rise 12.5 per cent. Low-income earners would see only a 0.5-per-cent increase.
While Mr. Ryan also proposes slashing federal spending by $6-trillion over 10 years, the main impetus behind his budget plan is that major tax cuts will stimulate economic growth, in turn shrinking the deficit.
Mr. Ryan, meanwhile, has softened his plan to reform Medicare. Under a proposal he sponsored with Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, future seniors could stick with the current government program or get a fixed subsidy to purchase private health insurance.
In a 60 Minutes interview on Sunday, Mr. Ryan stressed that his plan would not affect current seniors, one of whom is his Florida-based mother.
“Our point is we need to preserve their benefits because government made promises to them that they’ve organized their retirements around. In order to make sure we can do that, you must reform it for those of us who are younger,” Mr. Ryan said.
Most conservative opinion makers idolize Mr. Ryan for having the courage to broach the kind of entitlement reforms most politicians would not touch with a 10-foot pole.
But despite discovering an affinity for Ms. Rand, Mr. von Hayek and Milton Friedman as a teenager, Mr. Ryan has regularly shown a pragmatic side. It is one reason he has been elected seven times in a swing district, one that Mr. Obama carried handily in 2008.
He voted to reallocate federal money to prop up General Motors and Chrysler and even tried, unsuccessfully, to rescue the GM plant in his hometown of Janesville, Wisc.
“You’ve got to remember Obama won my district,” Mr. Ryan offered in a recent interview with The Daily Caller, a conservative website. “I don’t come from, you know, a red area. So I think it’s important to keep in mind where I come from.”