How Paul Ryan Convinced Washington of His Genius
The rise of the philosopher prince.
THE TALL, GOOD-LOOKING young man from Wisconsin sure was likable and energetic, but in the early 1990s, no one in Washington expected Paul Ryan to become the intellectual tribune of his party. It wasn’t clear at first that he even wanted to be in D.C. Offered a position on Senator Bob Kasten’s committee right after college, Ryan took awhile to respond because he was trying to find work as a ski instructor in Colorado instead. He only ended up going to Washington because his mom convinced him to, recalls Cesar Conda, the committee’s minority staff director.
Ryan was inquisitive during his early days on the Hill, but in a way that was hard to distinguish from mere favor-currying. (He had been named the “biggest brown noser” of his high school class.) He nagged Conda, now Marco Rubio’s chief of staff and a Ryan admirer, so often with questions about supply-side economics that Conda lent him two books to keep him busy—Jude Wanniski’s The Way the World Works and George Gilder’s Wealth and Poverty, both foundational tracts for trickle-down Reaganomics. “He was a regular guy—very personable, very friendly—not the sort of person you’d meet in the bowels of Heritage and Cato,” Conda said, referring to the premier right-leaning think tanks.
At his next job, with the conservative organization Empower America, Ryan would chat up any senior staff member he could find, a pad in hand to jot things down. “He wanted a reading list from everyone,” the organization’s co-founder Bill Bennett told me. “He’d say, ‘Where did you get that quote?’ ‘Where did you come up with that allusion?’ ‘What did you mean when you said that’s a distinction without a difference?’” Still, for all of Ryan’s drive, Bennett had no inkling of what lay ahead. “I saw an eager, hardworking, dedicated young guy,” he said. “But I did not see a future superstar.” In his spare time Ryan was working as a fitness instructor and waiting tables at a fratty Mexican restaurant on the Hill; he was generally indistinguishable from any of the city’s hundreds of other clean-cut young strivers.
Until he wasn’t. Now, Paul Ryan stands as the Republican Party’s big thinker, its philosopher prince. He gives speeches at think tanks and universities on everything from the rule of law to foreign policy. His budget proposal, known simply as “the Ryan plan,” cannot be challenged by Republicans without risk of blowback, and it has officially enshrined him as his party’s go-to guy against President Obama and his collectivist cohort. His omnipresence on cable television and in the conservative media—he has been mentioned 190 times in The Wall Street Journal opinion pages since 2008—has further burnished his reputation, to the point where William Kristol compared him to the late twentieth century’s most notable policy intellectual on Capitol Hill, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Even centrist deficit hawks and some left-leaning journalists and policy types have praised Ryan for his seriousness and honesty.
It’s a hell of a metamorphosis: fitness coach to vice presidential candidate in less than 20 years. But those who worked closely with Ryan as a young man weren’t really wrong to doubt him. He’s not a Moynihan-style big thinker, never has been. Rather, he’s a keen observer of Washington’s evolving political culture who has become good—very good—at exploiting it.