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The Legendary Paul Ryan

As the election takes the form of a great battle over Ryan’s plan, the fight will center on what we’re actually talking about. Obama wants to argue over the Paul Ryan plan itself, a set of policy proposals that would rewrite the nature of the American social compact. But the only way to do so will be to dislodge it from “Paul Ryan”—the courageous, reasonable, modest neighborhood accountant. It won’t be easy.

One trope that has marked Ryan’s media coverage from the outset is that he is consistently described as lacking ambition. It’s a sharp contrast with fellow Republican Eric Cantor, to whom the adjective “ambitious” is affixed like a tattoo. Ryan says, and many political reporters believe, that he is immune to the political concerns that distract his colleagues. He “has a level of disdain for the sort of rank political calculations required of people who want to climb the electoral ladder,” explains the Washington Post. Here is a telling description from Politico: “Of the partisan political game, Ryan confessed, ‘It’s not my natural tendency. I’m a policy guy.’ ” The operative word here is “confessed.”

Ryan worked his way up through the Republican Party from the inside. Born into a prominent family in Janesville, Wisconsin, he studied political science and economics at Miami University in Ohio, and set out for Washington. His first job was at Empower America, a think tank housing several veterans of the just-deposed George H. W. Bush administration, including Jack Kemp, for whom Ryan worked as a speechwriter. From there Ryan found a job as a Republican staffer in Congress. In 1998, at the tender age of 28, and with the help of his Washington connections, he won a seat in the House.

With his good looks and base of insider knowledge, Ryan was marked from the outset as a comer. He had to elbow more experienced Republicans out of the way to grab his nomination, and then leapfrog other more experienced Republicans to claim the party’s leadership of the House Budget Committee in 2007. And yet the narrative of Ryan’s career centers around ambitions others have on his behalf—always urging him to jump to the next level, while he modestly demurs. He would not challenge John Boehner for House minority leader, he said in 2008, but was “humbled by the outpouring of support.” (Given the titanic power he has amassed at the mere age of 42, one can only wonder what heights Ryan would have climbed if he actually cared about political gain.)

Ryan won a prime speaking place at the 2004 Republican National Convention, but he began distancing himself from the Bush administration soon thereafter, joining a chorus of conservatives who, by 2006, had begun bemoaning Bush’s alleged abandonment of true conservatism. Two weeks before the 2008 election, he openly sniped at the tactics of the McCain campaign. On Election Night, he gave a long interview on Fox News with Brit Hume, who introduced Ryan as an up-and-coming Republican leader. Ryan told the dismayed audience that “the Republican Party has to go back to its roots.” Three days later, The Wall Street Journal published an editorial, “Ryan for the Republicans,” urging the party to embrace Ryan’s vision and to elevate him over John Boehner as party leader in the House.

The single moment that firmly established Ryan’s control over the GOP came in February 2010. Obama, reeling from Scott Brown’s victory in a special election that threatened to halt health-care reform, convened a free-floating health-care discussion at the Blair House with leaders from both parties. Republicans feared it was a trap to make them look closed-minded but didn’t dare boycott the proceedings. They tapped Ryan as their debate leader, and, politely but aggressively, he launched a detailed attack on Obama’s bill, describing it as a kind of accounting fraud. Conservatives were ecstatic at the spectacle.

With his newfound status as Wonk King of the Republicans, Ryan set about persuading his party members to adopt his sweeping manifesto, “The Path to Prosperity.” The House Republican caucus voted almost unanimously for the plan despite knowing full well Obama would veto it. It was an impressive and, given the unpopularity of many of its provisions, almost sadomasochistic display of party unity and ideological fervor. The calculation was that if Republicans could withstand blowback from voters and hold the House in 2012, and win the presidency and Senate too, there could be no question but that they would quickly implement Ryan’s plan. This is how a congressman not even in his party’s leadership had determined the domestic agenda of the next Republican president long before voters had decided who that person would be.