Paul Ryan is well known as the good-looking, younger, super-model abdominal muscles toting partner of Mitt Romney’s failed presidential campaign. After that short run, he is now making a name for himself as an expert on budget balancing by proposing budgets named after him, much as high school prom queens run campaigns to get themselves elected with slogans like, “Vote Kimberly! She’s Queen-material!” With nifty terms like “freshman senator,” the United States legislative body does sometimes seem like a collegiate organization, but the longer someone is a part of it, the less it is a pep rally and the more it is a profession. Right now, Paul Ryan is in his “junior year” and with the midterm elections coming up, he is starting to look like a student facing his next to last midterms tests with no idea what he is actually going to major in.
That metaphor for Ryan’s political prospects is not new, but it is more relevant than ever after the announcement that Michigan Representative Dave Camp is retiring from Congress, subsequently, the chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee. Since Ryan has billed himself as a budget “wonk” and is generally touted as the best hope for balancing the obviously out of control American budget, he is considered the front-runner for that important chairmanship despite being only fourth in-line for the gavel.
But Paul Ryan’s career path is far from obvious. With the 2016 Presidential Elections looming a mere two years away, taking the committee’s chair seems like and either/or decision. Either he can take the gavel or he can start earnestly campaigning for the Republican nomination. But Ryan seemingly cannot make up his mind. He already had a chance to try for that chairman seat six years ago, but declined. Now, he has been given that chance again during a time when budget matters are especially important to the nation and the press while at the same time, people in the Republican party base are openly speculating about whether he is going to run for the nomination.
It looks at the moment as though he is not planning to run for the presidential nomination and people who have talked with him and know him believe that he is far more interested in affecting policy than in playing the games of political advancement. This might just be the biggest waste of presidential good looks and a spectacular abs-pecs combo ever, but it would be in line with Ryan’s characterization as a policy “wonk.” Still with the important moment of midterm elections when many people begin earnestly looking towards the political side of the presidential race, the speculation surrounding Paul Ryan really looks like a college junior who does not know what he is majoring in yet.
So what would college juniors actually tell Ryan about this quandary he apparently finds himself in? For normal college students, it is a bit like the decision between taking the coveted barista job at the coffee shop with the cool music and staying in school to get the degree for pre-med their parents what them to get. The chairman job is his barista dream and the 2016 presidential race is that pre-med degree. Which is he going to choose?
No one knows, but it is helpful to look at the choices and Ryan’s history with them. His time on the campaign trail was a spectacular failure in which he and Romney did not just trip on their way to the finish line, they had to call an ambulance to come get them to reach the end. Ryan’s record on the campaign trail is not that good, despite Republican googly-eyes over his abs and apparent wonk-ness. So when it comes time to speculate about 2016 (which is apparently now), Ryan’s prospects do not look that good. Only his Republican party parents are pushing him to do that.
Ryan is really just a free spirit who seems to think that the chairmanship job is his perfect barista gig. He is still doing things for pre-presidential/med class, like going to Iowa to give a speech, but the barista-chairman job is not going to last forever. Chairmanships like barista openings are relatively rare and this might be his last chance for a long time. It is hard to know exactly what Ryan is thinking at this point because he is notoriously private about his thoughts and his counsel, but there are signs that he is leaning towards the chairmanship. When last he visited Iowa, he turned down the opportunity to meet with donors and organizers in that all-important state. Whether he will do so again is unsure, but his decision this time will be telling.
It looks, then, like Paul Ryan is leaning towards staying low-profile and picking up his dream job, but there are two problems with that. First of all, he is not first in line for the job as far as seniority goes. There are two people in front of him and it is just possible that they will be tapped for the job before he is, no matter how optimistic Republicans are about his chances. The other problem is harder to get around: Paul Ryan really is not that great at his job.
With a reputation of being a wonk and an expert on budget matters, he has a positively abysmal record when it comes to how he handles these things. His party was largely responsible for shutting down the government when the two parties could not agree on a budget. How much of that responsibility actually lies with Ryan is not the issue here. The issue really is, would he create that kind of deadlock in the committee? Ryan does have obligations to his party and is to a certain extent under the control of the Republican leadership, so it is possible that he would have to take the same uncooperative stance in the committee as his party has taken to governing as a whole.
The other problem comes with Ryan’s apparent viewing of how America works. He sees the American system as a fight between two different sides: takers and makers. Or, rich people and people taking advantage of the system. His budget plans are notorious for taking money away from programs that help the poor, like Medicare, Medicaid, social security, and what are termed the “federal safety net,” and giving more money to the rich, either by cutting taxes by 25 percent for rich people and corporations. It is no wonder that there are people calling him a reverse Robin Hood. Others might simply call him a thief.
Time and time again, Ryan’s theories of “trickle down” economics have been shown not to work, yet he seems to be ignoring the evidence and going with what makes his Republican counterparts feel good. That’s a bit like a barista saying, “I’m not going to learn how to actually make the cappuccino. I’m just going to put it under the machine and hope something trickles down.” Wilful ignorance is not a good sign for his political aspirations.
But no doubt something will happen to get this wayward young man on the right track, whatever people who hold the power in the Republican party decide that is. For now, watching Ryan is interesting enough to keep people speculating and creating really great analogies that are mildly funny. In the meantime, the best metaphor for Paul Ryan’s political future is still the one of the undecided Junior, faced with midterms tests and prodding parents. To barista or not to barista? That is the question.
Opinion By Lydia Webb