The standard image of a cost-cutting Washington politician is a certain kind of dour old man a pinch-fisted Dickensian fussbudget who wags his finger and scolds Americans about living within their means. But on April 5, the U.S. met the new face of federal frugality in the form of Republican Congressman Paul Ryan.
Just 41 years old, with jet black hair and a touch of Eagle Scout to him, the House Budget Committee chairman unveiled an ambitious package of huge budget cuts designed to dig the country out of its crippling debt crisis. For Ryan, reining in spending is nothing less than an act of patriotic valor. "For too long, Washington has not been honest with the American people," he said. "We owe it to the country to give them an honest debate ... We're not just here so we can get this lapel pin that says we're a member of Congress. We are here to try and fix this country's problems."
Plenty of Republicans fear that Ryan's ideas could cost them those pins. His vision of $6 trillion in budget cuts over the next decade is certainly bold. But it would mean fundamental changes to Medicare and Medicaid (though not Social Security yet), which happen to be two of the U.S.'s favorite government programs. About 4 in 5 Americans consider protecting Social Security from big cuts more important than mopping up our national red ink, according to a March Reuters/IPSOS poll, and about 70% feel that way about Medicaid, which serves the poor and disabled, and Medicare. That's why so many politicians see the deficit as a nuclear reactor in the middle of a meltdown: rush in to repair it and you may absorb a lethal dose of radiation.
Ryan is taking that risk. His plan, says Republican political consultant Mark McKinnon, "will completely transform the fiscal debate. It will either be a brilliant blaze that illuminates Republican courage or a roaring fire that immolates the party in a spectacular political suicide." It shapes the debate over the nation's fiscal future just as the next presidential campaign is getting under way. And it could become the theme song of the 2012 Republican ticket, no matter which candidates are singing it. Already several Republican hopefuls, including Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty, have offered welcoming words, if not quite full endorsements.
The Obama White House, on the other hand, had a cool response, and liberals are already portraying Ryan as a heartless ideologue, noting that his approach would cut taxes for the wealthy. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi called the plan "a path to poverty for America's seniors [and] children and a road to riches for Big Oil."
Anticipating such attacks, some Republicans wish Ryan had waited for Democrats to offer their own plan. Yet Ryan argues that he just couldn't hold off any longer. "The Democrats clearly aren't taking up this challenge," Ryan told TIME. "They decided not to deal with this ... This debt is literally going to get out of our control pretty soon."
Ryan sounds bold where others have been timid because he's spent years preparing for this moment. Before his 1998 election from a swing district in southeastern Wisconsin, dotted with industrial plants and lake resorts, he earned a degree in economics and political science at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, then went on to work for a series of GOP luminaries, including the late policy innovator Jack Kemp and think-tank founder William Bennett. Arriving in Congress when he was just 29, Ryan made a name for himself fast, burrowing into health care policy and showing an appetite for politically risky budget fights. It was enough to make even some of Ryan's colleagues question his political sense. (Some may just be jealous of his fast-rising stock: Sarah Palin, among others, has singled him out for praise.)
He may be a modern political star, but there's still something a little old-fashioned about Ryan, right down to his crow's-beak nose. Maybe it's the premature seriousness that comes from finding your father dead of a heart attack when you were 16 and then helping to care for a grandmother with Alzheimer's disease.
Now a married father of three, Ryan is a PowerPoint fanatic with an almost unsettling fluency in the fine print of massive budget documents. "I love the field of economics," Ryan says. "I have a knack for numbers. And I've just delved into this issue for my adult life, basically."
Of course, the U.S.'s political battlefields are littered with brave warriors who once spoke hopefully of taking on budgetary sacred cows. (Recall George W. Bush's dead-on-arrival push to overhaul Social Security in 2005 or Newt Gingrich's politically toxic bid to cut Medicare spending in 1995.) But Ryan is gambling that the climate is different today. Washington has talked ad nauseam about the need to shrink our debt before world financial markets lose faith in America's solvency, leading to unimaginable economic chaos. But when a bipartisan fiscal commission created by President Obama who has repeatedly spoken of the need for deficit reduction came up with a set of proposals in December, partisans on both sides bashed its ideas and Obama kept a cautious distance. Nor did Obama offer substantial deficit-reduction ideas in his State of the Union address. "When the President decided not to do anything in his budget, that's when I made my mind up," Ryan says.