Paul Ryan Could Be a 2016 Contender—So Why Is He Talking About Going Home?

Paul Ryan could make a compelling run for the White House. So why is he talking about going home?

Nov. 6, 2014, 3 p.m.

In a cramped ban­quet room on the top floor of Janes­ville’s his­tor­ic Ar­mory build­ing, a con­tender for Wis­con­sin’s state Sen­ate tells an old joke—the one about politi­cians and di­apers need­ing to be changed of­ten, and for the same reas­on. “These politi­cians start to stag­nate after awhile,” the can­did­ate, a busi­ness­man named Bri­an Fitzger­ald, tells the crowd of loc­al Re­pub­lic­ans.

Just then, a voice booms from the back. “Bri­an! I’m right here!” The room erupts in laughter.

It’s Paul Ry­an.

To the dozens gathered, Ry­an is a ho­met­own hero. He’s the boy won­der who emerged from Janes­ville, pop­u­la­tion 63,820, to be­come Wash­ing­ton’s cham­pi­on of con­ser­vat­ism, the ar­chi­tect of Re­pub­lic­an budget­eer­ing, and, in 2012, his party’s nom­in­ee for vice pres­id­ent of the United States. At 44, with a head of black hair and an ath­let­ic frame forged by years of mur­der­ous morn­ing workouts, Ry­an seems noth­ing like the musty, bald­ing law­maker the loc­al can­did­ate has been de­scrib­ing. But many a truth in polit­ics is spoken in jest, and in this mo­ment Ry­an’s joke stabs at an un­com­fort­able one: He is every bit the ca­reer politi­cian. He has been in Wash­ing­ton a long time. Maybe too long. Ry­an laughs along with every­one else. But per­haps not for the same reas­on.

That he was first elec­ted at age 28 in 1998—a dozen years be­fore the dawn of the tea party—of­ten es­capes Wash­ing­to­ni­ans who seek to fore­cast Ry­an’s ca­reer tra­ject­ory. And make no mis­take: Long be­fore Mitt Rom­ney plucked Ry­an from a tal­en­ted crop of pro­spect­ive run­ning mates, Amer­ica’s polit­ic­al class already was ob­sess­ing over Ry­an’s track. His wildly con­tro­ver­sial budget pro­pos­als, which called for steep cuts to safety-net pro­grams, had made him a celebrity with­in the GOP and a bo­gey­man for Demo­crats. Rom­ney’s de­cision to bring him onto the 2012 tick­et only ce­men­ted a long-es­tab­lished nar­rat­ive: Paul Ry­an rep­res­en­ted the fu­ture of the Re­pub­lic­an Party.

He still might. The GOP tra­di­tion­ally pro­motes the “next in line” for pres­id­ent—that is, either the run­ner-up or the run­ning mate from the pre­vi­ous con­test. And Ry­an, by vir­tue of the feeble com­pet­i­tion Rom­ney bested to win the 2012 nom­in­a­tion, is con­sidered the closest thing Re­pub­lic­ans have to an heir ap­par­ent. For that reas­on, among oth­ers—his na­tion­al pro­file, his ad­mirers in the donor class, his abil­ity to unite the es­tab­lish­ment and act­iv­ist wings of the party—Ry­an is a crit­ic­al piece of the GOP’s 2016 puzzle. His de­cision to run, or not, will shape the Re­pub­lic­an field, dic­tat­ing wheth­er and when cam­paign tal­ent and big-donor dol­lars will flow to every­one else.

In re­port­ing on Ry­an, then, I set out with a nar­row ob­ject­ive: to de­term­ine wheth­er he’s plan­ning to run for pres­id­ent in 2016. The in­dic­at­ors are there—a book tour, stump speeches and cam­paign ap­pear­ances, vis­its to early primary states.

But after dozens of in­ter­views with Ry­an and mem­bers of his in­ner circle over sev­er­al months, I real­ized something. Ry­an isn’t pre­par­ing to run for pres­id­ent. In fact, he says he is plan­ning to exit elect­or­al polit­ics al­to­geth­er. Only he’s re­serving for him­self one rather large caveat.

Paul Ry­an with his fam­ily after Mitt Rom­ney con­ceded the pres­id­ency in 2012. (Mat­thew Cavanaugh/Getty Im­ages)

“I’M NOT GO­ING TO be in Con­gress 10 years from now,” Ry­an tells me one Septem­ber af­ter­noon. “I can be defin­it­ive about that.”

“You won’t be in Con­gress in 10 years?”

“No. God, no. I’ve already been there 16 years. I don’t want to be a ca­reer guy. Even though I’ve been there a long time, where you could already say that … ” He stops him­self. “It’s just, I don’t want to spend my adult life in Con­gress.”

The con­ces­sion that he’s a ca­reer politi­cian and the as­ser­tion that his con­gres­sion­al ten­ure is draw­ing to a close hardly con­form to the nar­rat­ive draf­ted by Wash­ing­ton’s power brokers that pro­jects Ry­an’s ca­reer on a years-long path to either the pres­id­ency or, as a con­sol­a­tion prize, the House speak­er­ship. Whichever he chooses, the think­ing goes, there’s no rush. He’s still young. Time is on his side. (“Paul’s only, what, 44?” says Rep. Mick Mul­vaney, a South Car­o­lina Re­pub­lic­an. “He doesn’t have to run for pres­id­ent right now. He doesn’t have to run for [con­gres­sion­al] lead­er­ship right now.”)

Yet this no­tion that the world is Ry­an’s oyster is hard to re­con­cile with the meta­bol­ism of the man him­self. This is a per­son who has been in Wash­ing­ton for nearly a quarter-cen­tury and says he doesn’t want to be there much longer; who sees Amer­ica ca­reen­ing to­ward fisc­al col­lapse, and is des­per­ate to re­form the tax code and en­ti­tle­ment pro­grams be­fore it is too late; who found his 55-year-old fath­er dead, and who knows that neither his grand­fath­er nor his great-grand­fath­er lived to see 60.

Not long after Fitzger­ald fin­ishes his speech, Ry­an and I sit in­side his hole-in-the-wall cam­paign headquar­ters on Main Street. We talk about life and fam­ily but also about death and ca­reer and leg­acy. “I have this sense of ur­gency about me,” Ry­an says when I ask about his fath­er. “Life is short. You’d bet­ter make the most of it.”

This at­ti­tude has long been ap­par­ent to those who know Ry­an well. “I think mor­tal­ity weighs on him,” says Bill Ben­nett, the former Edu­ca­tion sec­ret­ary and drug czar who has grown in­to something of a polit­ic­al fath­er fig­ure to Ry­an. “That’s the first ques­tion the doc­tor asks: ‘How old was your fath­er when he died? How old was your grand­fath­er?’ “

The two have spent sum­mers hik­ing the Rock­ies, and Ben­nett says Ry­an’s twin com­pul­sions, fit­ness and fisc­al re­straint, are driv­en by his race against the clock. “This is a guy who wants to make his life count in the span he’s got. And he also thinks the coun­try only has so much time to fix the prob­lems that he ad­dresses,” says Ben­nett. “That sand is pour­ing through.”

So, yes, Ry­an is in a hurry, but seem­ingly not to at­tain either of the po­s­i­tions that oth­ers see in his fu­ture. He tells me that he’s ruled out ever serving in the elec­ted House lead­er­ship; he ac­know­ledges, in fact, that he could already be ma­jor­ity lead­er, pre­par­ing to suc­ceed John Boehner, if that was his en­dgame. “I’ve nev­er wanted to be speak­er,” Ry­an tells me, not­ing how the travel re­quire­ments would dis­rupt his fam­ily life. “I know my­self very well, and I know where I’m happy,” he adds. “I like spend­ing my time on poli­cy­mak­ing.”

That seems at odds with Ry­an’s de­cision to join the pres­id­en­tial tick­et in 2012. But Ry­an’s al­lies dis­miss the in­con­sist­ency, ar­guing that run­ning for vice pres­id­ent is a 90-day sprint, not the 12- or 16- or 20-month mara­thon of a pres­id­en­tial cam­paign. Moreover, the VP job might have made him an im­port­ant fisc­al poli­cy­maker in the ex­ec­ut­ive branch, while bring­ing his fam­ily to Wash­ing­ton. This ra­tionale, in Ry­an’s mind, made 2012 an ex­cep­tion. But 2016 is a dif­fer­ent story.

When pressed to ex­plain where he fits in the party’s fu­ture, Ry­an sounds con­tent to be a sup­port­ing act­or rather than a lead­ing man. He says he wants to be chair­man of the House Ways and Means Com­mit­tee, a job with jur­is­dic­tion over taxes and en­ti­tle­ments. Chair­ing that pan­el in a Con­gress pur­su­ing tax re­form would hardly be com­pat­ible with a sim­ul­tan­eous bid for the pres­id­ency; in fact, that may be part of the ap­peal. Ry­an knows he can­not do both. He has al­ways de­clared policy work his pas­sion, and people close to him whis­per that Ways and Means would al­low him to achieve the en­dgame he’s hin­ted at since the 2012 de­feat: serve three terms as head of the com­mit­tee, au­thor a sweep­ing over­haul of the Amer­ic­an tax code, then re­tire from Con­gress at age 50, and ride in­to the sun­set.

Ry­an does little to dis­pute that exit plan. “If I choose the com­mit­tee track, that’s six years,” Ry­an says. “I want to be an im­pact­ful mem­ber of Con­gress. I want to make a big dif­fer­ence. But then I want to leave and go do something else. I want to be young enough where I can go do something else with my life.”

Everything I see in Janes­ville and hear from Ry­an and his al­lies cor­rob­or­ates the case against his run­ning for pres­id­ent: that his wife, Janna, and his kids, and his ho­met­own ties are everything; that he’s about to be handed the chair­man­ship he’s al­ways wanted; that the Re­pub­lic­an field in 2016 should be con­sid­er­ably stronger than it was in 2012.

But it oc­curs to me, sit­ting in that scruffy Main Street of­fice, that per­haps I’m not the one Ry­an is try­ing to per­suade. He says he’s not in­dis­pens­able to his party, yet be­moans its lack of lead­er­ship. He laughs at the sug­ges­tion of hav­ing con­trac­ted the “pres­id­en­tial bug,” yet ad­mits the 2012 loss haunts him. He in­sinu­ates that he wants noth­ing to do with a 2016 cam­paign, yet won’t rule any­thing out.

Ry­an says he wants to exit the polit­ic­al arena in a few years. He says he wants to live a nor­mal life. But he can still taste the White House. He can see less­er tal­ents lin­ing up to lead his party in­to the fu­ture. He can hear the in­flu­en­tial voices telling him to keep his op­tions open. And, try as he might, he can’t as­sure me that an el­ev­enth-hour re­cruit­ment ef­fort would be un­suc­cess­ful.

TO­BIN RY­AN AND I sit in a dimly lit booth in­side O’Ri­ley and Con­way’s Ir­ish Pub in Janes­ville, a plate of “Ir­ish nachos” (think pota­toes in­stead of tor­tilla chips) between us as I stare up at walls dec­or­ated with black-and-white pho­to­graphs of the area’s early set­tlers. This is a throw­back town where one’s last name still com­mands at­ten­tion and com­mu­nic­ates stand­ing; the Ry­an fam­ily, one of sev­er­al Ir­ish clans con­sidered loc­al roy­alty, is fea­tured prom­in­ently near the front of the es­tab­lish­ment. James Ry­an settled here in 1851, and a few dec­ades later his son, P.W. Ry­an, star­ted an earth­mov­ing busi­ness. That com­pany, now called Ry­an In­cor­por­ated Cent­ral, has been passed down through gen­er­a­tions. It’s still headquartered in Janes­ville and run by the Ry­an fam­ily.

To­bin, one of Paul’s two older broth­ers—they also have a sis­ter—says that leg­acy, and the toil as­so­ci­ated with their last name, is why he and oth­er fam­ily mem­bers heckle Paul to this day: “When are you go­ing to get a real job?”

“There’s still that cul­ture in our fam­ily of, we need to build roads, or build something, man­u­fac­ture something,” says To­bin, him­self a private-equity ex­ec­ut­ive. He doesn’t think Paul is bothered by the teas­ing, but he says his broth­er, hav­ing worked in polit­ics for so long, wants to do something else. When I bring up 2016 and ask about his broth­er’s next move, To­bin hes­it­ates. “I don’t think Paul has a polit­ic­al am­bi­tion,” he says. “If he can solve some of the most press­ing prob­lems or be a cata­lyst “… he’ll feel like, OK, I’ve made my mark, I’ve con­trib­uted in this chapter of my life.”

In 2012, Ry­an made clear that while run­ning for pres­id­ent him­self wasn’t in the cards, he would be duty-bound to ac­cept a spot on the tick­et. (Win Mc­Namee/Getty Im­ages)What might the next chapter look like? There are mur­murs about a de­sire to join aca­demia, though Ry­an nev­er did ac­quire the mas­ter’s de­gree in eco­nom­ics that he wanted. Some, mean­while, sug­gest he would wel­come a “dis­tin­guished schol­ar” po­s­i­tion at a Wash­ing­ton think tank that would pay him hand­somely to craft policy memos from the com­fort of Janes­ville, where he could live full-time with a fam­ily now ac­cus­tomed to see­ing him only on the week­ends. Oth­ers spec­u­late that Ry­an wants to re­tire from elect­or­al polit­ics only to re­sur­face in a dec­ade or two, once his chil­dren are grown, as Treas­ury sec­ret­ary or White House budget dir­ect­or.

“From the stand­point of his polit­ic­al ca­reer, he’s still viewed in the early stage, and the sky’s the lim­it, and so on,” Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Ron John­son of Wis­con­sin tells me. “But Paul has a life. And he really stumbled in­to the polit­ic­al realm. He’s told me that he’s not that en­am­ored with Wash­ing­ton, D.C. He has oth­er things he’d like to do with his life.”

Politi­cians like to say these things, es­pe­cially the ones who want to be seen as re­luct­ant lead­ers. Still, in my months of con­ver­sa­tions with more than two dozen of Ry­an’s friends, fam­ily mem­bers, al­lies, and ad­visers, not a single per­son pre­dicted that he would run for pres­id­ent in 2016. Most of them, un­promp­ted, poin­ted to the Ways and Means post, de­scrib­ing it as a lo­gic­al way for Ry­an to tackle the is­sues he’s long been pas­sion­ate about, from a perch he’s long coveted. (Sev­er­al friends re­call Ry­an, as a fresh­man rep­res­ent­at­ive, talk­ing about the Ways and Means chair­man­ship as his “dream job.”)

“It’s a ques­tion of, how do you get his ideas front and cen­ter? Do you have to throw your­self in­to the 2016 mix to get those ideas across? That’s a big price to pay,” To­bin Ry­an tells me.

To­bin, who looks just like a white-haired Paul, is fiercely pro­tect­ive of his young­er broth­er. He aban­doned a luc­rat­ive con­sult­ing job in Lon­don back in 1998 when Paul called about run­ning for Con­gress, mov­ing home to help man­age the cam­paign. The two have been in­sep­ar­able ever since, rais­ing their chil­dren—the sixth gen­er­a­tion of Ry­ans in Janes­ville—to­geth­er in the same neigh­bor­hood. To­bin was a fix­ture on the vice pres­id­en­tial trail in 2012, and he in­sists their fam­ily en­joyed the ex­per­i­ence. But he winces when asked about an­oth­er turn on the na­tion­al stage.

“From my vant­age point, maybe chair­ing Ways and Means gives him that abil­ity, without throw­ing him­self in­to a cam­paign, to get those ideas front and cen­ter. That’s more his style, and that’s prob­ably the way “… ” To­bin’s voice trails off, but his point is made.

Here’s the prob­lem. If it’s this ob­vi­ous that Ry­an doesn’t want to run for pres­id­ent, as count­less con­ver­sa­tions with friends and an hour-long talk with To­bin con­firms, then why not just rule it out, already? Surely it would spare Ry­an the ag­grav­a­tion of en­dur­ing in­vas­ive re­cruit­ing ef­forts, not to men­tion in­cess­ant ques­tion­ing from re­port­ers.

“Think about it from his per­spect­ive. If he said to­mor­row that he’s not run­ning for pres­id­ent, then nobody’s go­ing to pay at­ten­tion to what he says, or his pro­pos­als, or his book,” one long­time Ry­an ally, who asked not to be named, tells me. “You have to be in play in or­der to in­flu­ence the de­bate.”

This is true. But sev­er­al mem­bers of Ry­an’s in­ner circle of­fer a dif­fer­ent ex­plan­a­tion. He is un­der in­tensi­fy­ing pres­sure to run, they say; Rom­ney has been quietly co­ordin­at­ing with power­ful Re­pub­lic­ans, in­clud­ing some donors and con­sult­ants who ran his two pres­id­en­tial cam­paigns, to nudge Ry­an in­to the race. He won’t close the door both out of re­spect and be­cause he first wants to see the field take shape. The only way Ry­an runs for pres­id­ent, his fam­ily mem­bers and polit­ic­al al­lies say, is if he sees a fatally flawed Re­pub­lic­an roster and caves to what will by then be a full-scale draft cam­paign.

“There would have to be a void in our party, or the wrong ideas be­ing put forth, for him to be re­cruited in­to that pro­cess,” To­bin tells me. “He won’t rule it out, be­cause there could be a deep enough need and cry—and al­most a mor­al push—to shake this up and do something.”

He says he wants to live a nor­mal life. But he can still taste the White House.

Cer­tainly, Ry­an has giv­en his suit­ors some cause for op­tim­ism: the vis­its to early primary states, the dis­cus­sions with GOP donors, the high-pro­file blitz to pro­mote his book, The Way For­ward, which reads in parts like a pres­id­en­tial mani­festo. Yet Ry­an also seems des­per­ate to demon­strate how un­in­ter­ested he is in pres­id­en­tial polit­ics.

On a re­cent trip to Iowa to cam­paign for Sen­ate nom­in­ee Joni Ernst, Ry­an ini­tially turned down a coveted in­vit­a­tion to ad­dress the Faith and Free­dom Co­ali­tion, a gath­er­ing of the state’s lead­ing so­cial con­ser­vat­ives. He wound up at­tend­ing only after learn­ing that Ernst was vis­it­ing the event, and his un­scrip­ted, eight-minute pep talk was a far cry from the 2016 primers offered by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Louisi­ana Gov. Bobby Jin­dal, both of whom spoke for more than 30 minutes. Some 10 days later, the GOP’s elite donor class gathered in Man­hat­tan for a fun­draiser hos­ted by Rom­ney and Woody John­son, his 2012 fin­ance chair­man, where they heard pitches from top 2016 con­tenders in­clud­ing Sens. Rand Paul of Ken­tucky and Marco Ru­bio of Flor­ida. But Ry­an, much to Rom­ney’s chag­rin, couldn’t make it to New York City; he was home in Janes­ville, se­cur­ing hunt­ing li­censes for his kids. And when I ask Ry­an one af­ter­noon about the in­side flap of his book, which hails him as “the in­tel­lec­tu­al lead­er of the Re­pub­lic­an Party,” he barely lets me fin­ish the sen­tence. “I didn’t write that,” he says quickly. “The leaf­let is writ­ten by the pub­lish­er, not by me.”

Rare is the ser­i­ous pres­id­en­tial hope­ful, Re­pub­lic­an or Demo­crat, who bristles at be­ing called a lead­er of his or her party. Ry­an is such a per­son. In a series of lengthy in­ter­views for this story, the con­gress­man spoke en­thu­si­ast­ic­ally about re­build­ing the GOP by im­prov­ing voter out­reach and ex­pand­ing its ap­peal. He ar­gued pas­sion­ately that his party alone is cap­able of restor­ing “The Amer­ic­an Idea,” and en­cour­aged voters to give them the chance to do so. But nev­er once did he in­dic­ate that he was uniquely qual­i­fied to lead the charge.

“The pres­id­ent thing, it doesn’t have to be me,” Ry­an says with a shrug. “I just want us to win. I just want to get these policies passed.”

He has long re­ferred to him­self as a “policy guy,” which would sound haughty if it wer­en’t ac­cur­ate. Ry­an’s ca­reer, un­like those of so many would-be pres­id­ents or speak­ers, has been defined by ma­jor policy pro­pos­als—on So­cial Se­cur­ity, budget de­fi­cits, an­ti­poverty pro­grams. His time is spent cur­at­ing policy, not just ac­cu­mu­lat­ing power, a dis­tinc­tion that makes lead­ing Ways and Means an ob­vi­ous choice over run­ning for pres­id­ent.

“I’ve not known Paul to be a guy who thinks the one thing wrong with the world is that he’s not in charge of it. And there are such people,” says Yuval Lev­in, the Na­tion­al Af­fairs ed­it­or and con­ser­vat­ive in­tel­lec­tu­al. Lev­in, who has de­veloped a close friend­ship with Ry­an, adds, “This is not a guy who is over­come by polit­ic­al am­bi­tion. “… Paul has a dif­fer­ent kind of am­bi­tion, which is to see how Amer­ic­an life can be im­proved through pub­lic policy. And it’s an am­bi­tion that has left him more in­ter­ested in Con­gress than the pres­id­ency.”

It’s worth em­phas­iz­ing that politi­cians don’t ac­cept their party’s nom­in­a­tion for vice pres­id­ent if they are un­in­ter­ested in be­ing on deck for the Oval Of­fice. And nobody who runs for Con­gress nine times, and joins the na­tion­al tick­et, and goes from chair­ing one power­ful com­mit­tee to an­oth­er, is without polit­ic­al am­bi­tion. Ry­an has rap­idly climbed the lad­der, but the ques­tion of run­ning for pres­id­ent may hinge less on his ap­pet­ite for polit­ic­al ad­vance­ment and more on wheth­er he can find peace with a de­feat that clearly still aches.

IN JANU­ARY 2013, a surly Paul Ry­an sat with House Re­pub­lic­ans in­side a Cap­it­ol meet­ing room to de­bate le­gis­lat­ive strategy for the new Con­gress. Still stung by his and Rom­ney’s elect­or­al troun­cing 10 weeks earli­er, Ry­an was in no mood to keep en­ter­tain­ing cam­paign-re­lated in­quir­ies from his com­rades. At one point, ac­cord­ing to mul­tiple people in the room, after be­ing asked for the ump­teenth time what he’d learned, he snapped: “The Elect­or­al Col­lege mat­ters. That’s what I learned.”

Pre­vi­ously re­garded as pleas­ant and out­go­ing, the Wis­con­sin rep­res­ent­at­ive had re­turned to Con­gress ir­rit­able and in­tro­ver­ted. He kept head­phones on while walk­ing the hall­ways; he ig­nored re­port­ers seek­ing a quick com­ment; he barely spoke in con­fer­ence meet­ings. Ry­an wasn’t just sick of an­swer­ing the same ques­tions again and again; he was sick about the loss it­self. He had worked closely with former Utah Gov. Mike Leav­itt to craft Rom­ney’s trans­ition plan for the first 200 days, and he be­lieved that in Janu­ary 2013 he would be draft­ing au­da­cious budget­ary blue­prints from his new perch as vice pres­id­ent of the United States. In­stead he was back in the Cap­it­ol, deal­ing with the first loss of his polit­ic­al ca­reer, and, as he de­scribes it, “in a funk.”

Ry­an on the cam­paign trail in 2012. (Scott Olson/Getty Im­ages)Every­one no­ticed. “For about the first 90 days after he came back from the cam­paign, Paul was more con­tem­plat­ive; he was cer­tainly quieter; clearly dis­ap­poin­ted in the loss,” says Rep. Re­id Ribble, Ry­an’s friend and a fel­low mem­ber of the Wis­con­sin del­eg­a­tion.

“But I would also say he was more thought­ful. The ex­per­i­ence—I don’t want to say it changed him, but it re­fo­cused him to maybe ap­proach gov­ernance a little bit dif­fer­ently, where he’s look­ing at things in a broad­er con­text. I think Paul came back from that ex­per­i­ence “… more open to dif­fer­ent ideas.”

Ry­an’s re­mark about the Elect­or­al Col­lege was an ad­mon­i­tion to his col­leagues, many of whom, by vir­tue of rep­res­ent­ing ul­tracon­ser­vat­ive dis­tricts, had little idea about the broad­er chal­lenges Re­pub­lic­ans face. The pres­id­en­tial cam­paign had af­forded Ry­an a rather ex­clus­ive view of the GOP’s vi­ab­il­ity as a na­tion­al en­tity, and it left him ter­ri­fied. He watched the party re­in­force its repu­ta­tion as ob­struc­tion­ist and lack­ing in pos­it­ive ideas. He saw Rom­ney’s cam­paign lim­it its activ­ity, in his es­tim­a­tion, to “sev­en or eight states.” He ob­served Re­pub­lic­ans strug­gling to com­mu­nic­ate with wo­men, minor­it­ies, and young people. And he knew it was un­sus­tain­able.

Ry­an largely kept quiet about these rev­el­a­tions, but his ac­tions showed that something had changed. In that first ses­sion of the 113th Con­gress, he re­peatedly raised eye­brows by sep­ar­at­ing him­self from the House’s tea-party con­tin­gent and vot­ing in a man­ner he felt would im­prove the party’s stand­ing. He sup­por­ted rais­ing the debt ceil­ing just weeks in­to Obama’s second term; he voted to reau­thor­ize the Vi­ol­ence Against Wo­men Act; he even re­fused to sign a let­ter de­mand­ing that the Af­ford­able Care Act be de­fun­ded as a con­di­tion for nor­mal gov­ern­ment fund­ing. Ry­an warned col­leagues that such an ap­proach, which he later dubbed “a sui­cide mis­sion,” would res­ult in a gov­ern­ment shut­down (which it did) and that Re­pub­lic­ans would be blamed (which they were).

The surest sign of Ry­an’s evol­u­tion, though, came after the shut­down ended. He was named the House’s chief ne­go­ti­at­or in a budget con­fer­ence with Demo­crat­ic Sen. Patty Mur­ray, whose own budget was the ideo­lo­gic­al coun­ter­point to Ry­an’s. He stunned con­ser­vat­ives by strik­ing a deal with Mur­ray that made sig­ni­fic­ant con­ces­sions on spend­ing levels and se­quest­ra­tion. The right wing’s fisc­al mes­si­ah, who in 2011 called his budget pro­pos­al “the new House ma­jor­ity’s an­swer to his­tory’s call,” had scaled back his am­bi­tions, worked closely with Demo­crats, and brokered a mean­ing­ful bi­par­tis­an com­prom­ise.

None of this went over well with Ry­an’s con­ser­vat­ive col­leagues, who whispered that he’d lost his nerve. Af­fil­i­ated ad­vocacy groups at­tacked the man who had long been their cham­pi­on. (Freedom­works, which gives Ry­an an 81 per­cent life­time mark, pegged him at 68 per­cent on its 2013 le­gis­lat­ive score­card; Ry­an’s ap­prov­al from Her­it­age Ac­tion dropped to 59 per­cent in the 113th Con­gress from 74 per­cent in the 112th.)

Ry­an is sur­pris­ingly forth­right about all of this—his post-2012 trans­form­a­tion, the budget com­prom­ise, the back­lash from con­ser­vat­ives—even though it val­id­ates earli­er cri­ti­cism that he was the most ideo­lo­gic­al mem­ber of the Re­pub­lic­an Party. “That’s funny,” Ry­an says. “A lot of people don’t say that about me any­more. They used to say that about me.”

The Wis­con­sin rep­res­ent­at­ive had re­turned to Con­gress ir­rit­able and in­tro­ver­ted.

When I ask him wheth­er he would have struck the deal with Mur­ray a few years ago, he replies: “Maybe not. I think I’ve grown a little wiser in time. And I think I’m a little more com­fort­able tak­ing the hits for do­ing these things. I think time gives you wis­dom and ex­per­i­ences give you wis­dom, and they im­prove your tem­pera­ment.”

Ry­an thinks for a mo­ment, then adds: “But, yeah, as a young­er guy, I prob­ably would not have done that.”

RY­AN WAS REARED in Wash­ing­ton to be a right-wing ideo­logue. As the nar­rat­ive de­mands, he began humbly, as a mail-room in­tern, the low­est per­son on a le­gis­lat­ive to­tem pole, for Sen. Bob Kasten of Wis­con­sin. Cesar Conda, who was Kasten’s staff dir­ect­or at the Sen­ate Small Busi­ness Com­mit­tee, re­calls Ry­an, then a 20-year-old stu­dent from Miami Uni­versity in Ohio, tak­ing his du­ties ser­i­ously, and pes­ter­ing him whenev­er he made de­liv­er­ies. “He would come right in and start ask­ing ques­tions about policy. What is the sen­at­or work­ing on? Why does the sen­at­or take this po­s­i­tion?” Conda says. “So, in­stantly, he struck me as a guy who was very in­tel­lec­tu­ally curi­ous.” Kasten hired him as a full-time staffer after gradu­ation, but Ry­an is still re­membered for the oth­er jobs he held while in­tern­ing for the sen­at­or: Tor­tilla Coast waiter and fit­ness train­er.

After Kasten lost his reelec­tion bid in 1992, Ry­an landed a job at Em­power Amer­ica, the con­ser­vat­ive ad­vocacy be­hemoth led by Ben­nett and former Rep. Jack Kemp. They were look­ing for a hungry young staffer who could work long hours on Kemp’s side of the shop: eco­nom­ic policy. Pete Wehner, the group’s ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or, says that’s ex­actly what they got.

Wehner re­mem­bers as­sign­ing Ry­an a numb­ing daily ex­er­cise: cut­ting dozens of news clips from morn­ing pa­pers and past­ing them care­fully in­to a bind­er. It was te­di­ous and time-con­sum­ing, but there were “nev­er, ever” any com­plaints from the young man whose love of un­glam­or­ous as­sign­ments would be­come le­gendary. “You didn’t get the sense with Paul that he was driv­en by nar­row polit­ic­al am­bi­tion,” says Wehner, who later served as Pres­id­ent George W. Bush’s dir­ect­or of stra­tegic ini­ti­at­ives. “He was in it be­cause he was en­tranced and en­chanted by the ideas side of polit­ics. Nobody thought this guy was a Su­preme Court justice, or a fu­ture pres­id­ent, or destined for Con­gress.”

Five years later, Ry­an was back on Cap­it­ol Hill and con­sidered a rising star among GOP aides. That’s when Rep. Mark Neu­mann, who rep­res­en­ted Janes­ville, launched a Sen­ate cam­paign and asked Ry­an to run for his con­gres­sion­al seat. The idea was dizzy­ing to the 27-year-old and mys­ti­fy­ing to those who had nev­er known him to har­bor any in­terest in, much less tal­ent for, cam­paign polit­ics.

“When he called and asked me wheth­er he should run for Con­gress, and wheth­er that passed the laugh test, I said, ‘Yeah, it does,’ ” Ben­nett re­calls. “But, you know, I wouldn’t have said it passed by a mile.”

As Ry­an ag­on­ized over wheth­er to launch his first cam­paign for Con­gress in 1998, he spent hours with Kasten chew­ing the fat on is­sues of fun­drais­ing and travel and tac­tics. Ul­ti­mately, though, the de­cision was not com­plic­ated. “The fun­da­ment­al ques­tion Paul de­cided he needed to an­swer was: Can I have more im­pact on pub­lic policy as a high-level staffer or as an elec­ted of­fi­cial?” Kasten re­calls.

Ry­an ran, and with the ad­vant­age of strong name re­cog­ni­tion and com­munity re­sources back home, he turned a com­pet­it­ive dis­trict—Wis­con­sin’s 1st, which had been con­trolled by Demo­crats for 23 of 27 years—in­to a Re­pub­lic­an strong­hold. (He has coas­ted to reelec­tion eight times since.)

It’s im­possible to over­state the in­flu­ence former Rep. Jack Kemp, who died in 2009, had on Ry­an’s world­view. (Dir­ck Hal­stead/The LIFE Im­ages Col­lec­tion/Getty Im­ages)Be­fore long, he was gen­er­at­ing buzz among Wash­ing­ton’s power­ful. Wehner re­calls a cas­u­al con­ver­sa­tion with seni­or Bush White House of­fi­cials about the le­gis­lat­ive prowess of the novice Wis­con­sin law­maker. It was the mo­ment Wehner real­ized his former em­ploy­ee had broken through.

“It be­came clear he was go­ing to be a play­er,” Wehner said. “What stuck out was, he was so young. And he was do­ing it on his know­ledge of policy. It wasn’t a situ­ation like Bill Clin­ton, where people could see this was a polit­ic­al thor­ough­bred from the get-go. Paul’s qual­it­ies were dif­fer­ent.”

STILL, IT WAS 13 YEARS be­fore the Re­pub­lic­an es­tab­lish­ment came call­ing. In 2011, a power­ful co­ali­tion of con­ser­vat­ive think-tankers, in­flu­en­tial ed­it­or­i­al writers, and Re­pub­lic­an law­makers beat down his door and begged him to run for pres­id­ent. But un­like the mo­ment he first con­sidered elec­ted of­fice, Ry­an was no longer con­cerned about hav­ing an im­pact; his fisc­al policy pre­scrip­tions had be­come a lit­mus test for Re­pub­lic­ans na­tion­wide. Par­tic­u­larly on the pres­id­en­tial stage, squeam­ish­ness over Ry­an’s budget blue­prints could define a can­did­acy in the eyes of the con­ser­vat­ive base. (Newt Gin­grich, for in­stance, nev­er re­covered after dis­miss­ing Ry­an’s pro­pos­al as “right-wing so­cial en­gin­eer­ing.”)

Bey­ond that, Ry­an had an­oth­er reas­on not to run: He was cer­tain that In­di­ana Gov. Mitch Daniels would. Ry­an had spent the spring of 2011 ag­gress­ively lob­by­ing his friend and fel­low Mid­west­ern­er to join the race. Ry­an wanted the 2012 elec­tion to be “a battle of ideas,” as Kemp of­ten called polit­ics, and he saw none of the Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates, Rom­ney in­cluded, as cap­able of el­ev­at­ing the de­bate.

Ry­an pleaded with Daniels, and felt stung when Daniels de­clined to run—so much so that Ry­an, who had already ruled out a bid, began act­ively re­con­sid­er­ing. He spent the sum­mer hold­ing dis­creet dis­cus­sions with GOP power brokers des­per­ate for a fresh face in a stale, un­in­spir­ing field. Daniels him­self turned the tables on Ry­an and urged him to be­come the “ideas” can­did­ate. But Ry­an ul­ti­mately passed, con­vinced it would re­quire too much time away from Janes­ville.

In the en­su­ing months, two things changed. First, Ry­an got to know Rom­ney, who viewed the Budget chair­man’s sup­port as crit­ic­al to shor­ing up his own con­ser­vat­ive cre­den­tials. The former Mas­sachu­setts gov­ernor made no secret of his court­ship, and their part­ner­ship cul­min­ated in a March 2012 sprint through Wis­con­sin, dur­ing which Ry­an form­ally en­dorsed Rom­ney and the two forged a bond that laid the ground­work for the VP se­lec­tion later that year.

Second, as Ry­an warmed to Rom­ney, he softened on the idea of run­ning a na­tion­al race. That sum­mer, after Ry­an had sub­mit­ted the ini­tial ques­tion­naire to Rom­ney’s veep-vet­ting team, he sur­prised Ben­nett dur­ing a hike in Col­or­ado by say­ing he planned to ac­cept the nom­in­a­tion if offered. Ry­an made clear that while run­ning for pres­id­ent him­self wasn’t in the cards, he would be duty-bound to ac­cept a spot on the tick­et.

Today, Ry­an re­fuses to “re-lit­ig­ate” the cam­paign. But ac­cord­ing to sev­er­al people close to him, he was frus­trated by Rom­ney’s cau­tious­ness, both in re­fus­ing to em­brace some spe­cif­ics Ry­an was known for, and in nar­row­ing the states and demo­graph­ic groups the cam­paign would tar­get. Ry­an pushed early and of­ten for vis­its to black com­munit­ies to dis­cuss con­ser­vat­ive solu­tions to poverty—again chan­nel­ing his ment­or, Kemp—but was re­peatedly re­buffed. The lone ex­cep­tion was a late-Oc­to­ber speech in Clev­e­land, where he grabbed head­lines by say­ing, “In this war on poverty, poverty is win­ning.”

“He wanted to talk about poverty dur­ing the cam­paign. That’s where he wanted to spend his time, in down­town De­troit, de­bat­ing how to fix it,” To­bin Ry­an says, shak­ing his head. He quickly catches him­self. “He loves Mitt. You buy in­to their game plan. And their game plan is kind of set. “… If we had de­signed the game plan, that would have been em­phas­ized more.”

Ry­an now has the op­por­tun­ity to design and ex­ecute his own game plan in 2016. But it doesn’t seem likely, not when he thinks he has a for­mula to shape the pres­id­en­tial de­bate without run­ning. “His ob­ses­sion is tax re­form and en­ti­tle­ment re­form; as chair­man of Ways and Means, he’ll have the pen in design­ing the ex­act para­met­ers of what that looks like,” says an­oth­er Ry­an ally, who asked not to be named. “So if he can thread the needle and get the nom­in­ee to ad­opt his policies—and then, if we get a Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­ent, have the pen to write those policies—that’s the best of both worlds. He doesn’t have to be pres­id­ent to get done what he wants to get done.”

Ry­an is already mak­ing moves to­ward Ways and Means. He is act­ively cam­paign­ing for the chair­man­ship be­hind closed doors and is even re­cruit­ing mem­bers from oth­er com­mit­tees to join him on the pan­el. Un­like the out­go­ing chair­man, Ry­an has the sup­port from lead­er­ship re­quired to ad­vance a bill. Boehner ef­fect­ively hal­ted tax-re­form ef­forts in this Con­gress, but sources fa­mil­i­ar with the lead­er­ship’s de­lib­er­a­tions say Ry­an will be giv­en a green light to write and pass a com­pre­hens­ive pack­age out of his com­mit­tee in the next two years. As in 2012, then, Ry­an is poised to play king­maker in the GOP primary by of­fer­ing a policy blue­print can­did­ates feel com­pelled to sup­port and then let­ting those can­did­ates com­pete for his en­dorse­ment.

So, is there any­one who ex­cites him like Daniels did in 2012? Any­one whom he’d like to make king?

“Is there some­body like that now? Well, there’s Mitt. I’d get be­hind Mitt. But he’s not go­ing to run. He has zero plans of do­ing that. But oth­er than Mitt and Mitch, there’s not a—” Ry­an stops ab­ruptly. After a brief pause, he says, “I don’t know the an­swer to the ques­tion.”

I press him. “You were about to say there’s not a can­did­ate you’re ex­cited about.”

Ry­an smiles. “That’s why I stopped my­self.”

If the as­ter­isk along­side the “Ry­an’s not run­ning” talk is re­lated to his fears about a weak field, as To­bin and oth­ers con­tend, his com­ments re­veal a caveat wide enough to ac­com­mod­ate a cam­paign bus. That said, Ry­an’s al­lies ar­gue that he is con­sid­er­ably more in­spired by the pro­spect­ive 2016 roster than he was by the choices in 2012. Spe­cific­ally, Ry­an is known to be fond of and friendly with two po­ten­tial can­did­ates: Ru­bio and Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er.

Ry­an was an early and en­thu­si­ast­ic en­dors­er of Ru­bio’s 2010 Sen­ate cam­paign, and they’ve grown closer since. Ru­bio vig­or­ously de­fen­ded Ry­an’s pro­pos­al for Medi­care in 2012; Ry­an, in turn, backed Ru­bio’s im­mig­ra­tion-re­form ef­forts last year, even as the sen­at­or was blitzed by the con­ser­vat­ive base. They are like-minded on many fronts, and Ry­an is known to re­spect Ru­bio im­mensely. They also share a com­mon friend: Cesar Conda, who hired Ry­an in Kasten’s of­fice and today is Ru­bio’s top polit­ic­al ad­viser.

Mean­while, Walk­er and Ry­an have been close for dec­ades, and Ry­an could feel com­pelled to en­dorse his home-state gov­ernor, should he run. There has long been buzz in Wis­con­sin about Ry­an and Walk­er com­pet­ing for the same nom­in­a­tion, but their mu­tu­al friends say that’s highly un­likely. “My guess is they’ll work it out between them­selves,” John­son tells me. “I just don’t see Paul Ry­an and Scott Walk­er go­ing toe to toe.”

IT’S IM­POSSIBLE TO OVER­STATE the in­flu­ence Jack Kemp had on Ry­an’s ca­reer and his world­view. Kemp ad­voc­ated for a pos­it­ive, in­clus­ive brand of con­ser­vat­ism; his tu­tel­age is evid­ent when Ry­an speaks softly on im­mig­ra­tion re­form and when he vis­its Amer­ica’s im­pov­er­ished neigh­bor­hoods. In­deed, Ry­an joined Em­power Amer­ica be­cause he id­ol­ized the failed 1988 pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate and was con­vinced the or­gan­iz­a­tion was a “cam­paign-in-wait­ing” for Kemp’s 1996 White House bid.

So it is worth re­call­ing why Kemp, a former House mem­ber and con­ser­vat­ive icon, stunned Re­pub­lic­ans by stay­ing out of that race. “My pas­sion for ideas is not matched with a pas­sion for par­tis­an or elect­or­al polit­ics,” Kemp ex­plained at the time. (Not­ably, des­pite his lack of in­terest in run­ning for pres­id­ent, Kemp ac­cep­ted the VP nom­in­a­tion when it was offered by Sen. Bob Dole.)

We’re walk­ing down Main Street in Janes­ville, and between Ry­an’s first-name-basis en­coun­ters with neigh­bors on the street, we dis­cuss the ups and down of 2012. He seems genu­ine in re­call­ing as­pects that were in­spir­ing or en­joy­able. Still, he can’t hide his ex­as­per­a­tion with the mi­cro­scope of pres­id­en­tial polit­ics. “I did 220-some TV in­ter­views where every loc­al re­port­er wants to make their name be­cause they stumped you,” Ry­an tells me, rolling his eyes.

I ask him if that at­ten­tion and ex­pos­ure is a de­terrent to run­ning his own cam­paign. He as­sures me there’s more to it than that. “First of all, I don’t have this really huge ego that some have, where they think, ‘I’m the sa­vior. I’m the guy.’ I don’t think like that,” Ry­an says. “Second of all, I’m a nor­mal per­son who likes be­ing a nor­mal per­son. Mean­ing, a nor­mal fam­ily, and a nor­mal life, liv­ing nor­mally.”

He pauses and looks me in the eye. “But I know I could do the job.”

When Ry­an enters the Rock County GOP vic­tory cen­ter, a few blocks from his cam­paign of­fice, dozens of vo­lun­teers cheer. He came to thank every­one for their ef­forts, and to keep them en­er­gized through Elec­tion Day. Ry­an’s speech is short, and when he’s fin­ished people line up for pic­tures and auto­graphs. Every­one has an an­ec­dote to share—the mis­chief they got in­to to­geth­er as teen­agers; that awk­ward speech Ry­an gave dur­ing his first cam­paign—and Ry­an, though rush­ing to leave, smiles earn­estly and listens to all of them.

As we near the exit, one more per­son ex­tends a hand to­ward Ry­an. It’s a col­lege kid, fresh-faced and sport­ing a red Wis­con­sin Badgers sweat­shirt. He says the first vote he ever cast was for Paul Ry­an as vice pres­id­ent, and he shares how dis­ap­poin­ted he was in the res­ult. Ry­an thanks him, pats him on the back, and tells him to stay en­gaged. The young Re­pub­lic­an grins. A mo­ment later, he says he’s hope­ful Ry­an will run for pres­id­ent in 2016.

But Ry­an doesn’t hear him. He’s already slipped out the door. His kids have a cross-coun­try meet, and he’s run­ning late.

What We're Following See More »
McCain Family to Endorse Biden
9 hours ago

"The late Sen. John McCain's family plans to support former Vice President Joe Biden's White House bid, backing the Democrat not only in his party's crowded primary race but also in a general election matchup with President Trump, the Washington Examiner has learned. In an extraordinary snub to Trump, who derided McCain's Vietnam War service and mocked him even after his death last August at age 81, the McCain family is preparing to break with the Republican Party. McCain represented the party in Congress for 35 years and was chosen as its presidential nominee in 2008, losing to Barack Obama."

Trump Opposes White House Aides Giving Congressional Testimony
13 hours ago

"President Trump on Tuesday said he is opposed to current and former White House aides providing testimony to congressional panels in the wake of the special counsel report, intensifying a power struggle between his administration and House Democrats. In an interview with The Washington Post, Trump said that complying with congressional requests was unnecessary after the White House cooperated with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe of Russian interference and the president’s own conduct in office."

Nadler Subpoenas Unredacted Report
5 days ago
Mueller Made 14 Criminal Referrals
6 days ago
The Report Is Here
6 days ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.