Paul Ryan Is Running the Show

The 2012 Republican presidential field finds itself in an unusual position -- playing second fiddle to the House Budget chairman

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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.

Most Republicans in Congress come from safely gerrymandered districts and risk little by supporting Ryan's budget. (The greater risk for many would be not supporting it.) But that isn't the case for the presidential hopefuls, whose appeal must extend beyond the conservative base if they are to have any hope of defeating President Obama. To them, Paul Ryan poses a problem.

Ordinarily, when the presidential primaries heat up, national candidates assume the role of party leaders and set the agenda. But since none commands much support, none has anything approaching Ryan's influence. This has created an unusual situation in which the presidential aspirants are essentially bystanders and Republican politics are being driven by governors and congressmen. As one adviser to a presidential candidate put it to National Journal's Ronald Brownstein in March, ''This is the tail wagging the dog.'' Brownstein suggested that some of the extreme positions being imposed on the GOP presidential field -- intense opposition to collective-bargaining rights for public-sector unions; support for hardline anti-immigration laws like Arizona's -- could harm the party's nominee in the general election since President Obama and the Democrats will likely exploit them.

In fact, the damage is already being done, except it's occurring within the Republican Party and the dividing factor is Ryan's budget, particularly its plan to privatize Medicare. The budget's attempt to overturn the individual mandate in the new health care law has been problematic for Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, who supported mandates before the Tea Party arose, when doing so was considered acceptable for Republicans. On Sunday, Gingrich reiterated his support for mandates and then dismissed Ryan's Medicare plan as ''radical'' and ''right-wing social engineering.'' Conservatives excoriated him. In Iowa, television cameras captured a humiliating exchange with a voter who denounced his attack on Ryan and urged him to ''get out before you make a bigger fool of yourself.'' On Tuesday, Gingrich called Ryan and apologized.

All this is testimony to Ryan's impact. If there were any questions about primacy within the party, they're settled now. Gingrich's submission established the Ryan budget as the one true benchmark for activist conservatives. But even Ryan appears to recognize its drawbacks. On Monday, he gave a speech in Chicago in which he sought to recast his designs in a softer light. He barely mentioned Medicare.

The problem for Republicans is that this budget likely represents a high-water mark, and an unattainable ideal. A number of swing-district Republicans have met with an angry backlash. Congressional leaders have signaled that they won't attempt to enact it. And while a budget deal is unlikely anytime soon, congressional Republicans can in theory compromise under the right set of circumstances. But that will be much harder for a presidential candidate -- harder still now that Gingrich has capitulated.

Joshua Green writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe.

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