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Budget Hawk Ryan Offers Romney Risk, Reward

Jul 24, 2012
Originally published on July 25, 2012 10:30 am

Among those on Mitt Romney's list of potential running mates, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan has youth and experience, he's a conservative from a swing state, and he has big ideas and the policy chops to back them up.

But the chairman of the House Budget Committee would not be the safest of choices.

Back in February, when the Republican primary was still in full swing and the party's right wing was conspicuously unhappy with the idea of Romney, tax hawk Grover Norquist spoke to the Conservative Political Action Conference.

"We are not auditioning for fearless leader," said Norquist. "We don't need a president to tell us what direction to go. We know what direction we want to go. We want the Paul Ryan budget, which cuts spending $6 trillion."

Roadmap To Controversy

That kind of enthusiasm is something Romney could use — a boost from a conservative darling like Ryan.

Ryan's pedigree is strong. He worked on the staffs of Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback and the late Republican luminary Jack Kemp. He won his own seat at 28, which means that now, at 42, he's a seasoned legislator.

But it's Ryan's ideas that first catapulted him into political stardom. The budget plan he introduced in 2010, or the "road map," as he called it, ignited a major debate within Congress.

"The road map gives you universal access to affordable health insurance for every American, and it makes Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security permanently solvent," Ryan said in an interview with then-PBS host Charlie Rose. "We can't have these entitlements designed like they are right now."

Ryan's budget was instantly controversial. It called for sweeping cuts to social programs, and, most troubling for seniors, would have changed Medicare from a guaranteed benefit to a voucher program.

Still, Republicans lined up behind it and rode the plan to a sweep of the House, giving Ryan the chairmanship of the Budget Committee. Within a few months, the House passed the Ryan budget (although the Senate did not).

That's the kind of energy a Romney candidacy could use. But interestingly, the very thing that makes Ryan a Republican star makes him deeply troubling to others.

Political Backlash?

Last year, fresh from the House vote that passed his budget, Ryan met angry constituents outside a town hall meeting in Kenosha, Wis. Inside the meeting, Ryan tried to explain his budget's cuts to future Medicare benefits and its lower corporate tax rates, but was interrupted by protesters.

This is the real danger for Romney if he were to pick Ryan — igniting the anger of voters who favor a stronger safety net, including seniors and many independents.

Ryan's plan would slash social spending — from Head Start to health care — while cutting taxes on businesses and the wealthy. The Obama campaign has seized on this, calling the plan the "Romney-Ryan budget."

There's some evidence that narrative could work for Democrats.

In a 2011 special election in upstate New York, Democratic Rep. Kathy Hochul ran ads against Republican Jane Corwin, ads targeted at independents linking Corwin to Ryan's budget plan. The ads worked. The Democrats picked up a seat that had been owned by the GOP for 40 years.

Now, even some Republicans are running against the Ryan plan, like Montana Rep. Denny Rehberg, a Senate candidate. A recent pro-Rehberg campaign ad notes that he "refused to support a budget plan that could harm the Medicare program so many of Montana's seniors rely on."

So, while it's true that Ryan could boost enthusiasm in the GOP, that might come at too high a price. That is, firming up the Democrats' narrative about Romney — that he's more concerned with business and wealth than he is about people.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK. Here's one way to think about Mitt Romney's vice presidential choice. He can make a safe pick or, as some would put it, go for sizzle. In other words, you pick the person who just seems competent or you pick a person who generates excitement, maybe also some risk.

Paul Ryan's name has been mentioned. He is from a swing state, Wisconsin. His fellow congressional conservatives talk him up. He's associated with big budget ideas. That all seems safe. But because of some of those big ideas, he would also come with a lot of sizzle. NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports.

ANDREA SEABROOK, BYLINE: Back in February, when the Republican primary was still in full swing and the party's right wing was conspicuously unhappy with the idea of Mitt Romney, tax hawk Grover Norquist gave a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

GROVER NORQUIST: We don't need a president to tell us what direction to go. We know what direction we want to go. We want the Paul Ryan budget, which cuts spending $6 trillion.

(APPLAUSE)

SEABROOK: Ryan's pedigree is strong. He worked on the staffs of Kansas Senator Sam Brownback and Republican luminary Jack Kemp. He won his own seat at age 28. That means now, at 42, he's a seasoned legislator. But it's Ryan's ideas that first catapulted him into political stardom. The budget plan he introduced in 2010 - the roadmap, he called it, speaking on PBS:

(SOUNDBITE OF PBS BROADCAST)

REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYAN: The roadmap gives you universal access to affordable health care for every American, and it makes Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security permanently solvent. We can't have these entitlements designed like they are right now.

SEABROOK: Ryan's budget was instantly controversial. It makes sweeping cuts to social programs, and most troubling for seniors, it changes Medicare from a guaranteed benefit to a voucher program. Still, Republicans lined up behind it and rode the plan to a sweep of the House in 2010, giving Ryan the chairmanship of the Budget Committee. Within a few months, the House passed the Ryan budget.

That's the kind of energy a Romney candidacy could use. But interestingly, the very thing that makes Ryan a Republican star makes him deeply troubling to others.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Hands off. Medicare. Hands off.

SEABROOK: A windy day in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Angry constituents met Ryan, fresh from the House vote that passed his budget. Inside the town hall meeting, Ryan tried to explain his budget's cuts to future Medicare benefits and its lower corporate tax rates.

RYAN: The international average for the corporate tax rate is 25 percent. Ours is 35 percent. Hey, come on. Everybody (unintelligible)... If you're yelling, I just want to ask you to leave.

SEABROOK: Here's the real danger for Romney: igniting the anger of voters who favor a stronger safety net, including seniors and many independents. Ryan's plan slashes social spending, from Head Start to health care, while cutting taxes on businesses and the wealthy.

The Obama campaign has seized on this, calling the plan the Romney/Ryan plan. And there's some evidence that narrative could work for Democrats. In a 2011 special election in upstate New York, Democrat Kathy Hochul ran ads against Republican Jane Corwin - ads targeted at independents.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Corwin remains a staunch supporter of the GOP plan, a sign that Corwin is a strict GOP partisan.

SEABROOK: And the ads worked. Democrats picked up a seat that had been owned by the GOP for 40 years. And now even some Republicans are running against the Ryan plan, like Montana Senate candidate Denny Rehberg.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And Rehberg refused to support a Republican budget plan that could harm the Medicare program so many of Montana's seniors rely on.

SEABROOK: So while it's true that Ryan could boost enthusiasm in the GOP, that might come at too high a price - that is, firming up the Democrats' narrative about Romney, that he's more concerned with business and wealth than he is about people.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.