Ever since Mitt Romney named Rep. Paul Ryan as his vice presidential pick, he's been touting the Wisconsin Republican's bipartisan credentials. "This guy's a real leader," Romney said in their joint 60 Minutes appearance. "He's reached across the aisle. He's worked with Democrats, Republicans. Tried to take on the toughest issues America faces."
The debate over what kind of Republican Ryan is -- a knuckle-dragging ideologue bent on smothering the size of the federal government, as Democrats insist, or a bipartisan dealmaker, as Romney claims -- will be one of the central fights in the broader war over defining the GOP ticket.
On Ryan's biggest issue -- the budget -- he has shown little willingness to compromise with Democrats. "This is not a budget. This is a cause," he said in 2011, when he rolled out the GOP spending plan.
Still, both sides have some ammunition.
Exhibit A for Romney is that Ryan worked with liberal Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon last year to craft a bipartisan "white paper" on how to overhaul Medicare. It's still on Wyden's website, complete with a photo of him huddling studiously with Ryan. But Wyden has been working hard to distance himself from Ryan's broader budget blueprint and remove his name from GOP talking points.
"Governor Romney is talking nonsense," Wyden has said.
Last year, Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, also worked with his Democratic counterpart on the budget panel, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, to unveil a proposal to allow a limited presidential line-item veto of spending. They even appeared side-by-side on MSNBC. "We want to show we don't always go at each other's throats around here. We can actually agree on some things, and this is one of those things we agree on," Ryan said, as Van Hollen nodded.
Ryan's genial nature, even as the climate in the Capitol has soured, has made him friends across the aisle. But there is little in Ryan's recent record to indicate he is a big-picture compromiser with Democrats. His 2012 budget package passed this year out of the House with zero Democratic votes. The New York Times' Nate Silver has pointed out one measurement that ranks Ryan as "the most conservative Republican member of Congress to be picked for the vice-presidential slot since at least 1900."
Though Ryan talks regularly about striking a bipartisan deficit-reduction deal, he's been at the forefront of scuttling any packages that have appeared to have any momentum. In 2010, Ryan was a member of the bipartisan deficit-reduction panel chaired by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson. Except that Ryan voted against the final commission plan (It included a tax hike). And a year later, when a bipartisan group of senators were whispering about a bipartisan deficit package of their own, Ryan's criticism helped derail the talks.
In a lengthy New York magazine profile earlier this year, Jonathan Chait wondrously asked, "How has Ryan managed to occupy these two roles in our national life--[nonpartisan fiscal] award-winning spokesman for those Americans demanding a bipartisan agreement to reduce the deficit, and slayer of bipartisan deficit agreements--simultaneously?"
Chait settled on Ryan's "remarkable talent for radiating good intentions." It's a talent that the rigors of a presidential campaign will put to the test.