Paul Ryan: Media Darling, Deal Maker, and 2016 Frontrunner?

The media started to take Paul Ryan a little more seriously this week. Even before the Republican-led House overwhelmingly passed his less-than-popular budget deal, the general consensus was that this was a new, better phase in his career.

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Paul Ryan has entered a new, better phase in his career. The Republican-led House overwhelmingly passed his less-than-popular budget deal, the general media consensus is that Ryan is more mature, wiling to compromise in a partisan political world, willing to throw himself to the Tea Party dogs to do his job. He's even said things about poverty, and all his efforts are paying off on the media front.

The praise is a little excessive. Michael Tomasky at The Daily Beast went so far as to argue that, while the polls won't list him as a front-runner, he's cemented his place in the 2016 conversation:

Ryan now uniquely straddles the mainstream conservative and hard-right worlds. No one else among the 2016 contenders does. This could all change of course. And he's not going to register, I shouldn't think, as the front-runner in the polls. But he's pulled something off here. He tends to be forgotten in '16 conversations for some reason. I doubt any longer.

This almost reads like a recommendation letter, and it's not even the highest praise Ryan has received this week. He's come a long way from being the guy who, last year, was roundly criticized for his factually-challenged Republican National convention speech. The Washington Post, which has now jumped on the Ryan bandwagon, called it "breathtakingly dishonest." This March, Ryan faced more backlash over his budget, which would have hurt the poor with major cuts to Medicaid. If nothing else, remember that this is the same guy who was roundly mocked for his brotastic photo shoot in Time. (That was before he'd wooed the press, since Time waited nearly a year to release the unflattering photos hours before the vice presidential debate.) But that was all a long time ago.

Even before the deal even passed, on Wednesday USA Today called this a potential "turning point," noting that he'd shifted from drafting far right bills lauded by conservatives to "a co-starring role in cutting a budget deal with liberal Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington." That turning point involves a certain amount of bravery, too, as The Washington Post pointed out on Thursday morning in a piece called "Paul Ryan's boldest moment? It's happening right now." 

Ryan's past budgets have been a win-win. Republicans loved them and praised him for them, but they were never going to pass, meaning they were never going to fail. He could, as the Post put it, "rake in kudos from conservatives for putting out a vision that would address the country’s debt and spending problems without ever — really — having to worry about what it would mean if your plan went from proposal to law of the land." That's the Ryan we're used to — all ideology talk, no compromising walk. But now? Now he's "bold," and all grown up. 

In Jake Sherman's Tuesday Politico piece "The new Paul Ryan," that maturity takes the form of being willing to compromise on his lofty fiscal ideals to get some work done. "He can claim he is as a man in tune with the realities of governing," Sherman argues, if the bill becomes law. 

Sen. Patty Murray and Ryan, deal makers. (AP)

And as Jonathan Weisman at The New York Times notes, this would be his first real law, not counting a renamed post office and an excise tax on hunting arrows. Regardless of the bill's fate, Ryan's earned a new label, "a deal maker and, to some, traitor."

The cost of winning over the mainstream press is an angry conservative Internet.  The National Review thinks the budget deal "hangs conservatives out to dry," Newt Gingrich calls it "dishonest" in a Newsmax essay, and presidential hopeful Sen. Marco Rubio said it would make it "harder for Americans to achieve the American dream," which is a slightly nicer way of saying its anti-American. Rand Paul, another possible 2016 candidate, called the deal "shameful" and a "huge mistake."

But that "some" contingent is, for the most part, the Tea Party and rival potential presidential candidates. Who cares what they think? Not Ryan, who comes off looking the most reasonable. “Read the deal and get back to me,” has been Ryan's response to the haters so far, specifically fellow 2016 presidential hopeful Sen. Marco Rubio. Weisman continues:

With a modest, bipartisan blueprint on taxes and spending, Mr. Ryan is taking a risk he has previously shied away from, putting what party leaders see as a crucial need — ending the debilitating budget wars in Washington that have crippled the Republican brand — over his own self-interests with the conservative activists that dominate the early Republican presidential primaries.

Ryan put progress before primaries, and if he suffers politically for it he'll be painted as a political martyr, strung up on his cross of compromise. Of course, it probably won't come to that. The budget deal passed the House Thursday night with an impressive number of votes (even Ryan was surprised). And while a few key senators are with holding their support, that's not Ryan's problem. Because while the media wants to peg this week as the turning point in Ryan's career, he's been rebuilding himself ever since the election. Last month the Post noted Ryan had been "quietly visiting inner-city neighborhoods" (so quiet multiple media organizations have covered it) and that he "hopes to roll out an anti-poverty plan." Whether that includes cutting $756 billion from Medicaid over 10 years, as his March budget did, we shall see.

Ryan has managed to surprise the press by being one of the few congressmen to actually do his job. And the media's eating it up, since the last few years of gridlock have set the bar pretty low.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.