Republican Congressman Paul Ryan recently received an unexpected olive branch, in a most unexpected setting. During a public sparring session with House Republicans in Baltimore on Jan. 29, President Obama singled out the Janesville, Wis., native, who has put forth a controversial plan to balance the federal budget with a sweeping overhaul of Medicare and Social Security, which together with defense spending comprise 55% of the government's total outlays. Obama called Ryan's "Roadmap for America's Future" a "serious proposal" and praised its author as a "pretty sincere guy" with a "beautiful family." It was a rare moment of comity in an otherwise fractious political winter which meant, of course, that it couldn't possibly last.
Just days later, Obama's budget director, Peter Orszag, shined the spotlight on Ryan again this time to expose what Democrats perceive as the plan's many warts. Among the elements of his proposal, Ryan wants to privatize Social Security by establishing opt-in individual accounts funded partly by payroll taxes. He also wants to raise the eligibility age for Medicare benefits for Americans currently under 55 and scrap the current system for one in which vouchers would be used to purchase private insurance. While the Congressional Budget Office upheld Ryan's contention that the plan would ultimately bring the ballooning federal deficit under control escalating health care costs would outpace the value of the vouchers, for instance, and thereby save the government money Orszag rebuked the plan, calling it a "dramatically different approach in which much more risk is loaded onto individuals." In short, Ryan says, "the budget director took that olive branch and hit me in the face with it."
Since then, Democrats have followed up with a flurry of withering attacks, all of which signal a tactical shift: after months of painting their opponents as obstructionists willing to sacrifice critical legislation for electoral gain, Democrats are now tripping over themselves to juxtapose their ideas with a substantive Republican policy proposal. Still, the blows have done little but burnish Ryan's reputation. His was the first name out of Sarah Palin's mouth when the Tea Party queen was asked to handicap the field of GOP presidential candidates, and the conservative punditry hailed Ryan as a "one-man refutation to the idea that Republicans are the Party of No," as Pete Wehner, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, puts it. The response from the left has been equally charged. Paul Krugman of the New York Times skewered the proposal as the centerpiece of a Republican "economic agenda that hasn't changed one iota in response to the economic failures of the Bush years." The Washington Post's Ezra Klein, who praised aspects of the proposal for its candor, called it a "radical document that takes current policy and rolls a live grenade underneath it."
Blowing up the system was the point, of course and it's the main reason that Ryan has become the GOP's man of the moment. A telegenic supply-side conservative, Ryan cut his teeth as a speechwriter for Jack Kemp and Bill Bennett in the mid-1990s. Even back then, says Wehner, for whom Ryan worked at Empower America, "it was clear that he was a bright star in the constellation." After serving as legislative director for Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, Ryan mounted a successful bid for Wisconsin's First Congressional District seat in 1998, at age 28. Now 40, the avid outdoorsman is ensconced in a district that shares his pro-life, pro-gun-rights views, and has ascended to become the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee. "He's an unabashed policy wonk," says Mark Green, a fellow Wisconsin Republican and friend who was elected to the House the same year as Ryan. "This is a guy who would take policy papers back to the office with him at night and stay up late looking through them."
The irony of Ryan's rise is that he has vaulted to popularity by embracing historically unpopular ideas. For obvious reasons, slashing entitlements doesn't play well with the over-65 crowd America's most faithful voting bloc and House Republicans have conspicuously stood apart from the plan. But Ryan is betting that the looming threat of fiscal insolvency will help him marshal a case for the urgency of sweeping changes to entrenched social safety nets. Even raising taxes, he says, wouldn't do enough to address the problem. "Look, I don't see these things as third rails anymore," he told TIME. "You literally crush our economy no matter if you try to tax or borrow your way out of [debt]. It's just that unsustainable. The sooner we acknowledge that, the better off everybody's going to be. That's why we have to get out of this political mess we're in, where everybody demagogues each other and nothing gets done because people are afraid to tackle these challenges."
Devin Nunes, a California Congressman who worked closely with Ryan to develop the proposal, says making their policies politically palatable will be a gradual process, one that involves locating an array of co-sponsors hopefully from both sides of the aisle. "There haven't really been any conversations between our little group and the [Republican] leadership," Nunes says. "The leadership has got to be concerned about winning the next election, whereas Paul and I are concerned with having a win for the country." Their goal, he adds, is to spark serious debate, and "then, in 2012, if the conditions are right, to have a presidential candidate to campaign on this."
For his part, Ryan considers balancing the budget a moral imperative. "Do we want to reclaim and renew the American idea, where the role of government is to promote equal opportunity?" he asks. "Or do we want to replace that with a more Western European notion of a welfare state, where the role of government is to equalize the results of people's lives?" Ryan, not surprisingly, is an Ayn Rand acolyte he once cited her as the thinker who spurred his pursuit of public service. And while he says he does not subscribe to Rand's objectivist philosophy, he shares her conviction that the American promise is predicated on capitalism. "I do believe government has a role in making sure we have a safety net to help people who cannot help themselves or are temporarily down on their luck," he says. "But I don't want to see government turn that safety net into a hammock."
Wehner calls Ryan's "Roadmap for America's Future" an "intellectually honest document. It has real numbers and it puts forward real proposals. It grapples with the reality of the situation we are in, which is a fiscal nightmare." Being intellectually honest, of course, is often politically dangerous. With Republicans "still skittish," Wehner says, about jeopardizing their political momentum at a time when mere opposition to the President seems to be enough to propel them to gains in this year's midterm elections, Ryan may be forcing a conversation his party is unwilling to have. That's a risk that Ryan, who defied party doctrine by supporting the Troubled Asset Relief Program and the auto-industry bailout, is willing to take. "I put this out there to get the debate going and show a different vision," he says. "I don't expect it to be the platform of the party. I expect it to launch a debate about what America is to become."