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?

Tim Alberta
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.

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