Memo to Joe Biden: What I Learned From Covering Paul Ryan

A look at the Republican vice-presidential nominee's five secret weapons


The U.S. vice-presidential debate may be shift the conversationaway from President Obama's poor performance against Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

So who will Vice President Joe Biden, the six-term senator and occasional comic figure, be facing off against in tonight's debate?

Asked in April whether Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan might be a good running mate for Romney, Republican political insiders ranked Ryan a tie for third place. He was a party leader, sure, and an attractive spokesman, but his plans for health-care entitlements are controversial. A tendency to upstage the man in charge, too -- look how uneasy his relationship is with Speaker of the House John Boehner, his nominal leader.

On August 11, he was introduced as the Republican vice-presidential candidate.

Ryan has a tendency to move fast. He was elected to the national legislature at age 28 in 1999, but I began covering him 10 years later, when he charged himself with articulating his party's intellectual opposition to a newly-elected President Obama. He helped turn the House back to Republican control in 2010, becoming the chairman of the Budget Committee. I remember congratulating a magazine writer who became a Ryan speechwriter during this time for joining a rising operation.

After Romney's energetic, if frequently disingenuous, debate performance on October 3 outshone a listless Obama and gave the conservative ticket momentum, Ryan's job will be to maintain the pace. Before the debate, conservatives complained that Romney wasn't deploying Ryan, who has been limited to local events and media and is avoiding the national spotlight, widely enough to spread his message. They may have a point. One thing I learned covering Ryan is that he's a singular communicator for some fairly radical proposals. Here's how he does it:

He's got a nose for the big issue. Ryan's formative years in Washington after college were spent absorbing conservative economic doctrine that convinced him of the importance of a dramatically limited public sector. But as member and then chairman of the Budget Committee, he had little official responsibility: The committee sets broad spending levels in consultation with party leaders. Nonetheless, he's famous for his plans to privatize and reduce spending on Medicare, America's public senior health-insurance plan. Ryan made entitlements his cause when he realized they were a big driver of government spending, which left the members of his party ostensibly responsible for overseeing the programs rather miffed.

He knows a bipartisan deal sounds nice. Ryan has frequently praised a debt reduction plan released by the bipartisan Bowles-Simpson commission in 2010, and dinged Obama for not accepting its recommendations outright. He doesn't always mention that as a member of the commission, he voted against the plan because it increased taxes as well as cutting spending. While he has collaborated with Democrats like former budget director Alice Rivlin and Oregon Senator Ron Wyden on health-care-reform plans. He doesn't always mention that both collaborators have decried Romney's plans.

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Tim Fernholz is a reporter at Quartz.

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