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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