How Paul Ryan Convinced Washington of His Genius by Alec MacGillis


The rise of the philosopher prince.

  • Alec MacGillis Senior Editor

September 14, 2012

ONCE YOU EARN a reputation as a Serious Man in Washington, it’s almost impossible to lose it. In January 2011, a trio of organizations that preach fiscal responsibility held a gala at the Newseum, D.C.’s gleaming shrine to the media. Alan Greenspan; Doug Elmendorf, the head of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO); and a bunch of lobbyists and political strategists shuffled in to witness the presentation of a new award, “the Fiscy,” which, according to Concord Coalition president Robert Bixby, was intended to “provide some recognition and credit to those who have the guts to answer [questions about the debt] with something more than platitudes.” One of the three inaugural recipients was Paul Ryan, who, Bixby announced, had “earned his Fiscy Award really by being the first [congressman] in several years to step forward with a specific scorable budget plan that would actually solve the nation’s long-term structural deficits.”

There were two problems with this. First, Ryan’s plan, the “Roadmap for America’s Future,” wasn’t truly “scorable”—he had instead simply given the CBO estimates for future revenue and spending, prompting the organization to note that its analysis “does not represent a cost estimate.” The other problem was that, just a few weeks prior, but after the groups had decided to award a Fiscy to Ryan, he had rejected the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles debt-reduction commission he had served on.

When I asked Bixby about this recently, he acknowledged that the juxtaposition was “awkward.” “He could’ve given the entitlement reform effort a big boost and did not and that was a defining moment and not his best moment,” he said. But Bixby did not regret the award: “It wasn’t for his work on Simpson-Bowles. It was for another body of work. Like when a Nobel Prize is for a body of work from ten years ago.” That body of work included Ryan’s overall authority on the issue. “He’s very eloquent—he describes the nature of the debt and deficit problem very well,” Bixby said. “If somebody’s got a wealth of facts and figures at their fingertips and can recall them at a moment’s notice, other people tend to defer to that. He knows all these numbers.”

Bixby’s leniency here is remarkable and can be explained by a cultural shift that has taken place in the capital. Simply put, Washington has seen its supply of people able to talk about government in substantive terms—who know “all these numbers”—dwindle over the last two decades or so. The press has shifted ever more into permanent campaign mode; congressmen spend ever more time raising money rather than digging deep into issues that interest them. The upshot is that Washington now finds itself highly susceptible to doe-eyed young men brandishing graphs. What these “wonks” propose doesn’t even have to add up or be scorable, as the case may be with the Ryan budget, because people who lack much policy knowledge themselves regard those who have it with a reflexive awe—see the stud-with-a-spreadsheet halo that formed around Peter Orszag, the bespectacled former Obama administration budget director. And those who actually possess policy chops realize their singularity and seek comfort in each other’s company, oftentimes across the ideological divide.

In recent years, Ryan has done a masterful job of charming members of the opposite party—another skill that has ingratiated him to the city’s establishment. First came his partnership with Alice Rivlin, the former Clinton administration budget chief who served with him on the Simpson-Bowles commission. They bonded over their shared interest in overhauling Medicare with a “premium support” model in which seniors would buy private insurance coverage subsidized by the government. Rivlin told me she decided to work with Ryan because she found him “smart and knowledgeable” and “willing to negotiate.” For Ryan, the upside was clear: as the National Journal noted, Rivlin’s support “gave Ryan’s plan a veneer of bipartisanship.” When that alliance stalled over a disagreement on the details, Ryan quickly found a new Democratic partner for a revised version of premium support in Oregon Senator Ron Wyden. “There’s a lot to work with here in terms of trying to find common ground,” Wyden said at the time.

Meanwhile, Ryan was even managing to get a respectful hearing from liberal journalists. New York Times business columnist James B. Stewart suggested that Ryan’s plan could serve as the “outline of a grand compromise.” And there was Ryan’s relationship with Ezra Klein, who runs the “Wonkblog” at The Washington Post. Klein presents himself as a numbers guy, a true empiricist, and in Ryan he felt he had found a kindred spirit. So in 2010, Klein ran three long interviews with Ryan in which the congressman was able to frame even his most radical budget solutions as mere wonkery—as if the only thing he and Klein disagreed on were the details of, say, just exactly how to rein in health care costs in the out-years, when they were in fact separated by a gulf in beliefs and priorities.

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