The 2012 Republican presidential field finds itself in an unusual position -- playing second fiddle to the House Budget chairman
On Tuesday, one of the brightest stars in the Republican firmament, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, announced that he would not run for his state's open Senate seat next year. ''What matters to me is not the title,'' he said. ''It's my ability to impact policy.'' By that measure, he's right to stay put. From his perch atop the House Budget Committee, Ryan is having a bigger impact than just about anyone in Congress -- so big, in fact, that it extends to the Republican presidential field.
This influence stems from his budget, which House Republicans passed last month on a party-line vote. It's a curious document. Although it stands no chance of becoming law, and is so radical that even some of those who voted for it are backing off, it has quickly emerged as a litmus test for Republican candidates. Ryan has become a GOP rock star.
The budget is important because it distills and defines what had previously been a powerful but amorphous force. For two years, the Tea Party has shaped Republican politics, lifting upstarts like Rand Paul, Sharron Angle, and Christine O'Donnell over establishment favorites in primaries, and fueling the antipathy to government spending that has become the party's defining characteristic. Ryan's budget translated this principle into policy, setting out to slash spending and privatize popular entitlement programs like Medicare. Not long ago, such measures would have terrified most politicians. But Republicans seeking to keep faith with the Tea Party -- as most were -- understood that they had better cast their lot with Ryan.