The Ryan I Know: A Mild-Mannered Wonk and Ideological True Believer

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The author reflects on the bright young man she first met in 1995 -- and what we can expect for him now that he's Romney's vice presidential running mate.

paulryan1995Paul Ryan served as legislative director for then-Representative Sam Brownback of Kansas from 1995-1997. (C-SPAN)

I first met Paul Ryan in 1995 when he was working for freshman Rep. Sam Brownback, a member of the House class of 1994.

Like most of that class and their staffs, Ryan was a true believer -- a reference not to his faith but to the class's single minded conviction that reducing federal spending and cutting the deficit was their mission. It's a view Ryan still holds.

I frequently stopped by Brownback's office to chat with the staff and pick up tidbits for my in-progress book, The Freshmen, about the GOP takeover of Congress for the first time in four decades. Ryan was always friendly and fairly informative. Unlike many Republicans on the hill he was open, not guarded, and spoke often about his working mother.

People who don't know him and who see him only through his views -- or a caricature of them -- may find it hard to believe, but he always came across in person as a genuinely nice guy. In that regard, Mitt Romney will likely enjoy having him on the ticket.

Before working in Congress, Ryan worked for Jack Kemp, who was also a member of the House and later Bob Dole's vice presidential nominee. Ryan shares not only Kemp's faith in supply side economics but his optimistic, friendly outlook.

Liberals and supply-side opponents usually see the two as incompatible. But whether Ryan, with his relative youth and cheerful disposition, can sell an economic view of more tax cuts for the wealthy, major entitlement reform which could involve privatization; and deep domestic spending cuts as a path to economic success for all could be the fundamental question of this election.

The Democrats will portray the Ryan deficit reduction plan as scary and drastic. And maybe it is. But so are the economic problems facing the nation.

Americans know this and polls show the deficit is one of the top concerns for independent voters, as well as core Republicans.

Bill Kristol championed the veep selections of both Sarah Palin and Paul Ryan, and Ryan will undoubtedly appeal to the conservative base as did Palin. But Ryan couldn't be more different from the former governor of Alaska.

He has spent his entire career thinking and talking about policy. Expect Ryan's convention speech to focus on that. He will not be personal or attack Obama for being a community organizer like Palin did. That's not his style.

Ryan has always been something of a wunderkind. Only four years after arriving as a staffer, he was elected to Congress at the age of 28 to represent the Wisconsin district he grew up in, and his long tenure in the House thereafter landed him the chair of the House Budget Committee by the time he was 39.

The choice of Ryan also reflects a belief on the part of the Romney campaign that talking about the deficit and how to fix it will be popular with independent voters.

Whether they will go for Ryan's approach remains to be seen. But at least the Republicans will be talking about it now. The Obama team and the Democrats will have to do more than say the Republican approach is terrible. They will have to counter with a plan of their own.

After bi-partisan urging, Barack Obama appointed the Simpson Bowles deficit commission which in 2010 proposed a balanced plan involving tax increases, spending cuts and entitlement reform to deal with the debt problem. Obama ignored the report. Ryan was a member of the commission but refused to endorse the plan, saying it relied too heavily on tax increases and not enough on spending cuts.

Now Obama will have to decide if his campaign continues to simply attack the Republicans proposals -- or is ready to get behind an alternative of its own.

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Linda Killian is a Washington journalist and a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Her book The Swing Vote: The Untapped Power of Independents was published in January 2012 by St. Martin's Press.

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