As the presumptive presidential nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is currently the face of the Republican Party. But, as journalist Ryan Lizza suggests in his article in this week's New Yorker, the party's agenda and ideology are being driven by a very different figure: Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
Since taking office in 1999, Ryan has advocated at different times for the end of Medicare and Medicaid, and the partial privatization of Social Security. Deeply intellectual and ideological, Ryan remained an outsider among House Republicans until 2010, when the Tea Party movement helped sweep a younger and more radical generation of Republicans into the House.
Ryan, 42, is now the powerful House budget committee chairman. And with his most recent package of economic proposals, Ryan has been instrumental in shaping the policy landscape within the Republican Party — a landscape in which Romney must now campaign, Lizza writes.
Lizza joins Fresh Air's Terry Gross to discuss Ryan and why he believes the congressman has come to wield disproportionate influence in the upcoming presidential election. Lizza says Ryan got the Republican candidates — Romney included — to endorse his budget vision during the Republican primaries. Lizza says Ryan "knew that he had to make his budget something that all the candidates had to take a position on, so that they would be partly locked in, in the general election."
Ryan Lizza, The New Yorker's Washington correspondent, is known for his in-depth profiles of political candidates and officeholders including President Obama, Romney, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and many others. Lizza is also a political contributor at CNN.
How Ryan's budget proposal became an issue for GOP candidates
"It started back at a moment when some people thought Sarah Palin was still thinking about running for president. She wrote an op-ed where she endorsed Ryan's policies and that put Republican candidates on notice that if you were going to compete for Republican votes in the 2012 primaries, you had to take a stand on Paul Ryan's budgets. So that pushed all the candidates into making that choice and Romney, under some pressure frankly, endorsed it. And I think because there's been a sort of vacuum in the Romney policy world, Paul Ryan has been very strategic about filling that vacuum."
How Ryan leveraged himself
"When he becomes a congressman [in 1999] ... he knows how to leverage the conservative media and conservative think-tank world, to help change the climate, the ideological climate that Republican policymakers pay attention to. ... He promotes the 'roadmap,' his original budget, he promotes it through groups like Americans for Prosperity, through the conservative media, his old friends at National Review, Fox News and all the familiar conservative institutions — because if you are a Republican lawmaker who's trying not just to get re-elected but trying to change the intellectual climate in Congress, those are the places you go, those are the sort of opinion leaders, The Wall Street Journal editorial page, The Weekly Standard.
"So he really becomes a sort of darling of the conservative media in those early years when, frankly, a lot of other people aren't paying attention to him or his ideas. And I describe it as an 'outside in strategy,' he wasn't just working on convincing his fellow Congress members. ... He was going to the opinion makers, to the people who are already predisposed to these ideas and pushing them to help push his colleagues in Congress and that really starts to pay off once the Bush era ends."
How Ryan perceives the role of the president
"He doesn't want presidential candidates running on vague platitudes, and he was very clear in saying that Mitt Romney has already endorsed this set of ideas and there's no reason for him to run away from them now, and that he very clearly wants Romney to embrace them. I'm not so sure Mitt Romney wants to do that, to be honest. And I think we'll know in the next few months, we'll know at the convention, and we'll know when we start seeing a bit more detail from Mitt Romney about whether he decides to be a true Ryan Republican or if he and his pollsters and campaign strategists decide that Paul Ryan is leading the Republican Party over the cliff the way he arguably did in 2005, and they need to distance Mitt Romney from Paul Ryan and his ideas."
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. If you want to know what the Republicans would do if they win in November, the person to understand isn't necessarily Mitt Romney, it's Paul Ryan. That's what Ryan Lizza writes in his article "Fussbudget: How Paul Ryan captured the G.O.P." It's published in the current edition of the New Yorker.
Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin is the chair of the House Budget Committee, and nearly every Republican in the House and the Senate has voted in favor of some version of his budget plan. Ryan's goals include radically curtailing the government's role and its spending on social welfare programs like Medicare and Medicaid.
Lizza's article describes Congressman Ryan's background, how he developed his conservative views and how he's become a leader in his party. Ryan Lizza is Washington correspondent for the New Yorker and is covering the presidential campaign. Ryan Lizza, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You say that Congressman Ryan is remaking the Republican Party in his own image. What is that image? What are his core political and social beliefs?
RYAN LIZZA: I say he's remaking the Republican Party because in a very short period of time, he convinced all of his colleagues in the House or almost all of them and almost all of his colleagues in the Senate to vote for a set of ideas that just a few years ago, as recently as I think 2008, he could only get, you know, eight co-sponsors for.
That's sort of the heart of the story is how did he do this in just such a short period of time. And so just, you know, to get into the nitty-gritty of the policy, what you hear commonly described as the Ryan budget, right, you're going to hear this phrase a lot in this political campaign, the Ryan budget, this is the Republican policy manifesto, right. This is the - this is what Republicans in Congress have been talking about running on and proposing as the alternative to the Barack Obama policy agenda. And it took a long time for it to take shape.
So it starts with a radical alteration of Medicare, where if you're 55 or younger, when you enter the Medicare program, which is the government health care program for folks over 65, so if you're 55, in 10 years, if this policy were adopted, Medicare would no longer be a government insurance program. What you would get is a lump sum from the government, and you'd go out onto the private market and buy your own health care. You know, the criticism of that is that you wouldn't have enough money to pay for a health care plan under that design.
GROSS: So what else is in the budget plan that Ryan has proposed that you think helps define who he is politically?
LIZZA: Yeah, so a few big things. Medicare, radical reform of Medicare, fairly radical changes in Medicaid that would amount to cutting Medicaid, which is the health care program for the poor, by a third. A very - new set of large tax cuts that amount to $4 trillion over 10 years and then unspecified - so we don't know the exact programs he would cut, but big, major cuts to what's known as the discretionary portion of the federal budget, you know, the portion that pays for everything from national parks to meat inspection.
So that's sort of the Ryan budget, you know, major, major reduction in the size and scope of the government and a downsizing of the American welfare state, where the government would have much less role in protecting Americans from sort of the vagaries of misfortune. That's - I think that's a pretty fair way to describe it.
GROSS: Now, you think that if Romney wins the presidency, that the person to understand is actually Congressman Ryan. Romney said that he supports the Ryan budget. He said I think it would be marvelous if the Senate were to pick it up and adopt it and pass it along to the president. Why do you think if Romney wins that Ryan's really the person to watch?
LIZZA: I think that Romney has been very reluctant in this campaign to lay out a specific policy agenda, and I think there's a strategic reason for that. The Romney campaign believes that if they win, it will mostly be because the public has soured on President Obama, and Romney is sort of your, you know, your only alternative so that the campaign really is a referendum on the president so that Romney shouldn't be out there offering too many details because when you offer details, you just get attacked.
Now into that vacuum has come this agenda that congressional Republicans have articulated over the last few years, and specifically the Ryan budget. And so just as Paul Ryan, who's been in Congress since 1998, just as - since about 2008, he has helped convince the entire Republican congressional caucus to see his way on spending and taxes - he's had the same impact on the presidential campaign. It started back at a moment when some people thought Sarah Palin was still thinking about running for president. She wrote an op-ed where she endorsed Paul Ryan's policies, and that put all the Republican presidential candidates on notice that if you were going to compete for Republican votes in the 2012 primaries, you had to take a stand on Paul Ryan's budget.
And Romney, under some pressure, frankly, endorsed it. And if Romney were to be elected president, I think this would be an unusual presidency in that it would be led from Congress. You know, one quote I didn't include in the piece but I think is instructive is there's this phrase you hear in Washington from some Republicans and some conservative activists that we don't really want a president with a whole lot of ideas. We know what we want to do, we being House Republicans. We just want a president who's almost like an auto-pen. We'll pass the legislation, send it to the White House, and it will be signed. Now granted, Mitt Romney may have a thing or two to say about that, but that's the - that is the feeling, that is the sentiment among the very conservative members of the Republican class who were elected in 2010.
And Ryan, who of course was elected before that, has been sort of the intellectual mentor to that class. And so I think they're going to be driving the policy in Washington after the elections.
GROSS: What you're saying reminds me of a quote that I don't have written down so I'm going to have to paraphrase it, but it was something to the effect of the first time that he was in the House, and there was a majority of Republicans, it wasn't a good experience for him, and he doesn't want that to happen again.
LIZZA: He said it was miserable.
LIZZA: Because I asked him, I said look, Congressman Ryan, you - this budget is extremely austere. You know, what you want to do to the federal government is really, you know, transformational. But I can't help but notice that in the Bush years, you voted for large tax cuts, you voted for two wars that weren't paid for, you voted for Medicare Part D, the entitlement that helps seniors pay for prescription drugs, and then at the end of the Bush years, TARP, the bank bailout bill. And all told, that added 4 or 5 trillion dollars to the deficit. What do you - you know, how do you respond to that? How do you respond to this idea that you have no credibility as a fiscal conservative after that?
You know, and he was very up front, I though in - not that he opposes all of those votes, I think he still defends TARP, and he certainly still defends the tax cuts - but he argued that look, in the Bush years, these were not his words, but essentially he was miserable because he was forced to vote for things that he didn't want to vote for and that both in the House Republican leadership and at the White House there was not a suitable concern for conservative, small-government fiscal policy.
And I think part of what drives him now is that experience and a promise to himself now that he's in a leadership role not to go down that same road.
GROSS: So we talked a little bit about what Congressman Paul Ryan's budget plan is now, and he's the chair of the House Budget Committee. He's had three different versions of his budget plan. His first, in 2008, got only eight co-sponsors. You described that first draft as more extreme. What are some of the comparisons between the first draft and the current one? What was more extreme about the first draft?
LIZZA: Well, the first time around, I mean, he tried to take on not just Medicare but Social Security, as well. And, you know, if you remember after George W. Bush was re-elected, his first domestic policy was to reform Social Security, to add private accounts to Social Security.
So Paul Ryan was the guy in the House of Representatives who led that charge. And he did something very similar to what he's doing today. He argued to his colleagues that this for a long time was a dangerous issue for Republicans to touch, but the danger had passed and that Republicans could now talk about radically changing Social Security. He's saying the same thing today about Medicare.
And so in the first version of his budget in 2008, even after Bush's own Social Security plan went up in smoke, and in Bush's memoir he says he regretted doing it at all in 2005, even after that horrible experience, Ryan included a pretty dramatic Social Security privatization plan in what he called the roadmap, when he first released this sort of bold budget in 2008.
That got dropped out later. As he told me, in 2008, it was just him, as he said, unplugged. But by the time he started getting other Republicans involved, he had to make modifications to - he had to sort of scale back his ambitions a little bit, and the first thing that dropped out of the Ryan - of what we all sort of commonly call the Ryan budget was the Social Security privatization plan, which, you know, if you talk to Republicans in Washington, I mean, they remember the 2005 fight over Social Security as this epic disaster.
Democrats still talk about it as the beginning of the end of the Bush administration. So he took that out. That's a big change.
GROSS: And in his - in Ryan's second budget plan, the one from 2010, you say that began with basically a manifesto. What did the manifesto say, a manifesto that is no longer in his plan?
LIZZA: Yeah, so he always releases these things in a sort of public, bound - a public version, a bound copy, you know, before it gets written into legislative language that Congress actually votes on. And in 2010, the introduction to the document was, you know, this - I describe it as a manifesto, was this statement of ideology about how a person can only truly be free when they take responsibility for themself.
And I think that's at the core of who Paul Ryan is, and I think that's at the core of who the House Republicans are right now, and the larger Republican Party, that you can't - this is - you know, this is the sort of political theory behind a lot of the policies right now is that they believe too many Americans are dependent on government and that it's an actual - it's making them less free.
That was the sort of - that was the sort of big, bold philosophical statement in that 2010 budget. I looked at - the introduction was salted with language from the Constitution and "The Federalist Papers" and the Declaration and Solzhenitsyn, and at least a dozen other thinkers. It was this - you know, I don't want to be flip about it, but, you know, it had the feel of a grad student in political philosophy. You know what I mean? And that was the - that was how he introduced this document to the world in 2010.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ryan Lizza. He's Washington correspondent for the New Yorker magazine. He's covering the presidential campaign. His new article is called "Fussbudget: How Paul Ryan captured the G.O.P." Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ryan Lizza, the Washington correspondent for the New Yorker magazine. He's also covering the presidential campaign. His current piece is called "Fussbudget: How Paul Ryan captured the G.O.P."
In terms of the importance of taking responsibility for yourself, that's something that Paul Ryan had to do when he was young. This is central to your piece about him is that when he was 16, his father died, and not only did Paul Ryan's father die, Paul Ryan discovered his father's body, which, you know, had to be a very traumatic experience. And it was a turning point. You know, he had to become independent. His mother went back to school. His grandmother had Alzheimer's, moved in with him. At the same time, he got Social Security after his father's death because his father died.
Did he say anything about whether that help from the government helped him through this traumatic, life-changing experience?
LIZZA: Yeah, this has always been one of the central ironies in his career is he truly - I think you have to be careful about over-psychoanalyzing the figures you write about, but sometimes you - in an interview, something comes out, and you can see a sort of straight line between a life experience and the public policies that person pursues later on.
And he was very clear to me that discovering his father's body - his father had a heart attack, and Paul Ryan was the only person home. He found him dead in his bedroom. You know, not bad enough that your father dies, but you're the teenager who finds the body. That, he said to me, was a life-altering experience.
It got him on the road of political philosophy and getting interested in a certain set of conservative economic thinkers that very much influences his policy to this day. And as you point out, Terry, after that experience, he did receive his father's Social Security benefits. And, you know, I think in some of the previous stories that have been written about Paul Ryan, that episode is treated - or you get the picture that Ryan grew up underprivileged.
And I don't know if he's ever tried to make that case, but certainly some of the people writing about him have, and that's not the case at all. He grew up in a very prominent family in this town called Janesville, Wisconsin, in southeast Wisconsin, in between Madison and Chicago.
He grew up quite - I don't want to say well-to-do, but he was OK. And in fact, you know, his - the Social Security benefits from his father, he didn't actually have to live off of them. You know, he saved them, and he used the money when he went off to college. You know, other people who are less well-off might have to live on that money.
So look, I think it's fair to point that out, and I think it's fair - you know, it's a fair point of criticism that at an important, you know, point in his life, the government was there to help out.
GROSS: So let's talk a little bit more about Paul Ryan's background. Congressman Ryan is from Janesville, Wisconsin, population 64,000. And as you've said, his family had, you know, a pretty prominent place in the town. What was the family business?
LIZZA: Yeah, so when I went there, people would - I would say, you know, what was it like growing up as a Ryan. And they said oh, being a Ryan's a big deal. You know, there are basically these three families that are famous in the town, you know, and after World War II sort of helped build the town.
And the Ryan family, they were in the construction business. They built most of the roads in the town. You know, ironically, they helped build the interstate. So, you know, Eisenhower's big government program, connecting all of the various parts of America through a federal interstate system, the Ryan family helped do that in Wisconsin.
You know, so government spending on roads helped build Ryan, Inc. It eventually turned into a national construction firm that's still, you know, a major company today, and most of Ryan's family sort of went into the family business.
His grandfather actually got out of the construction business, unlike the rest of the family, and became a lawyer, and then his father followed the grandfather's footsteps and also became a lawyer. But, you know, if you go there, and you see the neighborhood, you know, as he told me, you know, literally dozens of his cousins still live within just blocks of his own house.
So the Ryan clan is very prominent there in Janesville, and it was important when he first ran for Congress. The Ryan name gave him a leg up.
GROSS: He was a political leader in high school. He was class president, prom king, belonged to many school clubs. And at the end of his senior year, he was elected biggest brownnoser.
GROSS: I was wondering if he told you that or if that was part of your investigative research.
LIZZA: You know, one of the most impressive things about Janesville, which is a really nice little town, is the library. They've got this fantastic library, and they have a little room at the library in Janesville devoted to the history of Janesville.
And when I went in to see a librarian and told her I was writing about Paul Ryan, and I wanted to learn about the history of the town and the history of his family, she stopped, and she said: Oh, Paul Ryan, I was a librarian at his high school. He was so popular. You know, I loved him.
And she was very proud to take me into the Janesville room and started pulling out his high school yearbooks and showing me, you know, the prom pictures and the class president pictures and all the rest. And then you get to one page in his senior yearbook, and, you know, as I guess a lot of seniors have, they had a senior survey. And Paul Ryan, in the senior survey, was voted by his classmates the biggest brownnoser. So that's how I found that out. His former librarian showed me his yearbook.
GROSS: Did that lead to any tough questions that you posed to Paul Ryan?
LIZZA: You know, I mentioned to him that his - in his senior year, he seemed to be just - you couldn't help notice, going through this guy's senior yearbook - often yearbooks aren't all that revealing or that interesting, people become, you know, different people - but he was all over the place.
You know, he was like a big deal when he was a senior in high school. And when I interviewed him, that's part of how we got into the discussion of what life for him was like before and after his father died. I mean, after his father died, he told me he made a conscious decision that he was going to take school more seriously. He became more of a social animal.
You know, he had essentially his first political campaign in winning that high school election. And that's the conversation I had with him about that, although he did point out that at least he didn't have a mullet, you know, a haircut that he says was very popular in Janesville at the time.
GROSS: That's always something to be grateful for.
GROSS: Ryan Lizza will be back in the second half of the show. His article "Fussbudget: How Paul Ryan captured the G.O.P." is in the current edition of the New Yorker. You'll find a link on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about Paul Ryan, the Republican from Wisconsin who chairs the House Budget Committee and has drafted a very conservative and controversial budget. His ambition is to dramatically reduce the size and scope of the federal government. Lizza's article, "Fussbudget: How Paul Ryan Captured the G.O.P.," is published in the current edition of The New Yorker. Lizza is Washington correspondent for the magazine and is covering the presidential campaign.
So when we left off, we were talking about Paul Ryan's biography. He says he credits Ayn Rand with getting him into public service. When did he first hear about her and what was it about her writing and her ideas that spoke to him?
LIZZA: And again, this is that same period in his life after his father dies where he starts getting into political philosophy and that's when he gets introduced to Ayn Rand and her famous book "Atlas Shrugged," which is about individualism and about being the only way to be free is to take responsibility for yourself. And that sets him off on a path exploring economic philosophers like Hayek. But Hayek and Rand are the ones that over the years, and in my interview with him, he has mentioned as being the real important early influences on him. Now...
GROSS: And who is Hayek?
LIZZA: What's happened - Friedrich Hayek is an economic philosopher, free-market economic philosopher - sort of, you know, pre-Milton-Friedman Friedman. But, you know, economic philosophy that believes that the markets work best when they have the least interference from the government. And interestingly, I didn't get into this too much in the piece, but it's, an interesting side note is that his fascination with Rand has become a little bit controversial. Rand was an atheist. And he was very quick to point out in the interview with me that, you know, he doesn't subscribe to Rand's atheism, it's just someone who, you know, who got him into economic philosophy. So if I, reading between the lines, what I think has happened in recent years is that Paul Ryan has realized that being associated with Ayn Rand is not as politically useful as he once thought it was and he's actually started to distance himself from her. But at the same time, not that long ago, he was citing her as the person that got him into public policy. So it's been a point of controversy more recently for him.
GROSS: So he decides to go into politics. He has a teacher who is very helpful and I think got him like an internship...
GROSS: ... or a position in a congressman's office?
LIZZA: So he goes off to Miami University in Ohio and one of the professors that he has that becomes very influential and a lifelong friend is this guy named Rich Hart. And I interviewed Hart, real opinionated conservative guy, and they sort of bonded over their mutual interest in Rand and Hayek and other - and Milton Friedman, and he takes some economic classes from Hart. Hart introduces him to the National Review magazine, right, the sort of flagship publication of the conservative movement and it's just, you know, another step on this journey of Paul Ryan getting into movement conservatism. So, you know, from the, you've got this sort of straight line from his father's death to Paul Ryan getting interested in political philosophy, to going off to college and really sort of bonding with a very conservative free-market professor, and then jumping really right away at a very young age into politics in Washington, getting low-level staff jobs for a Republican senator and then after a few years going to work for a sort of policy think-tank shop known as Empower America, that at that time was led by Jack Kemp. And most listeners will remember Jack Kemp - if they remember him at all - as Bob Dole's running mate in 1996. But before that Kemp was, the best way to explain him is a lot of conservatives thought he was the next Ronald Reagan. He was a former football star and a very conservative free-market Republican. And, you know, as Professor Hart, Paul Ryan's friend from college told me, Jack Kemp becomes almost like a father figure to Paul Ryan. And so you - I think the interesting part of this early history is from his father's death all the way to the doorstep of his first congressional campaign is just an education and immersion in the free-market conservative movement, and never, not much of a deviation away from that for that whole period.
GROSS: You know, one of the things I'm finding interesting about what you're saying about how Ryan got started in politics - conservative politics - basically, right out of high school, right out of college.
GROSS: And at the same time one of the reasons why he praises the 2010 crop of Republican freshman and why one of the reasons why he thinks they're kind of transformational is that, you know, he says a lot of them, they're not like lifelong politicians. They are people who have had jobs before, they are professionals, you know, in other professions. But he so far has been a lifelong politician.
LIZZA: Yeah. It's one of the central ironies in his career, that from his internship in college, working for a Republican senator, right up until the present day, his only private sector experience is a very brief period when he was on the doorstep of running for Congress, of returning to Janesville, Wisconsin, returning from Washington and working as what he described as a marketing consultant for his family's construction company. Frankly, I say in the piece that this was, you know, clearly just a bit of resume padding so he could have some, you know some small business qualification to identify with, But it was a very, very brief period. And I don't know for '97 but 1998, when he was running for Congress, he - in his financial disclosure, he only listed $1,800 in income coming from that company. So basically no private sector experience outside of summer jobs in high school and college presumably, although I'm not 100 percent sure about that. But from high school to the present day.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ryan Lizza. He is Washington correspondent for The New Yorker magazine. He's covering the presidential campaign. His new article is called "Fussbudget: How Paul Ryan Captured the G.O.P."
Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ryan Lizza. He's the Washington correspondent for The New Yorker magazine and is covering the presidential campaign. His article in the current edition is called "Fussbudget: How Paul Ryan Captured the G.O.P." And Paul Ryan is the Republican from Wisconsin who is the chair of the House Budget Committee.
What are some of the ways that Paul Ryan, through his political career, has used conservative think-tanks and conservative media to help forward his ideas?
LIZZA: Yeah. This is another way of thinking of his story. It really is testament to the institutions that conservatives have built up in this country over the last 40 years. I think because the conservative movement has always seen itself as needing an outsider mentality - conservatives, especially in the '60s and '70s, thought of most institutions in America in life as being controlled by liberals - that a lot of the history of the conservative movement is building their own institutions. And by the time someone of Paul Ryan's generation, by the time he comes along, there are all of these pre-existing institutions that you can get plugged into where you can sort of learn the ropes of the conservative movement and think, and sort of learn how to influence the Republican Party. So that's very much a thread in his story and, you know, Empower America, this Jack Kemp organization we talked about is one example. When he becomes a congressman, he knows that world very well and he knows how to leverage the conservative media and conservative think-tank world to help change the climate, the ideological climate, that Republican policymakers pay attention to.
GROSS: So how did he leverage it?
LIZZA: Yeah. So he promotes the roadmap, his original budget, he promotes it through groups like Americans for Prosperity, through the conservative media, his old friends at National Review and Fox News and all the, you know, sort of familiar conservative institutions, because if you are a Republican lawmaker who's trying, you know, not just to get re-elected, but trying to change the intellectual climate in Congress, those are the places you go, those are the sort of opinion leaders; The Wall Street Journal editorial page, The Weekly Standard. So he really becomes a sort of darling of the conservative media in those early years, you know, when frankly a lot of other people aren't paying attention to him or his ideas. And that, you know, I describe it as an outside-in strategy, you know? He wasn't just working on convincing his fellow Congress members that changing Social Security and changing Medicare and cutting the government the way he wanted to do it was the right thing to do. He was going to the opinion makers, to the people who were already predisposed to these ideas, and pushing them to help push his colleagues in Congress. And that really starts to pay off once the Bush era ends and there's a lot of sort of resentment about Bush's, you know, conservatives would argue Bush's big government ways and then when Obama comes in. So he's already sort of set the stage for what we see happen in 2009 and 2010 and the energy of the Tea Party movement and this sort of resurgent conservatism.
GROSS: Was trying to privatize Social Security his first major endeavor in Congress?
LIZZA: Yeah. That was the one, that was the first one where he was out front as a leader, had his name on a bill that, you know - any member of Congress could put their name on any idea and it often doesn't go anywhere. The key is, do you have your name on something that is on the agenda? And not just the agenda in Congress, but the agenda at the White House? So there was something called, you know, the Ryan-Sununu Bill. That was a, you know, Sununu was the senator, Ryan was the member of the House and that was 2004 and 2005. So 2005, George W. Bush gets re-elected and he decides to pursue Social Security reform, and there's Paul Ryan out front with the sort of leading option, interestingly enough also known as the Kemp Plan because it was Jack Kemp's favorite version of Social Security reform, and that's his first big moment.
And I spent a lot of time in the piece on that chapter of his career. One, because it's the first big public policy moment, but two, because there are obvious parallels with what he's doing now. You know, convincing his colleagues that it's not dangerous to be big and bold on a traditionally Democratic issue. And, of course, the way the story ends is not very happy for Paul Ryan because Social Security, it ends in disaster for the Bush administration. And Bush himself, at the prodding of his chief political strategist, Karl Rove, says don't go with the Ryan plan. Don't go with the Jack Kemp-Paul Ryan plan. It's too radical. And Bush actually proposes something a little bit more scaled-back and even that more scaled-back version ends in tears for Republicans in 2005.
GROSS: So privatizing Social Security is no longer in the Paul Ryan budget because...
LIZZA: That's right.
GROSS: ...he couldn't get enough Republican support on it...
LIZZA: That's right.
GROSS: ...and he figured that out during a lot of listening sessions that he had with Republicans in the House...
GROSS: So what lesson did you say Paul Ryan learned from the consequences that President Bush faced when he endorsed a more modest version of privatizing Social Security?
LIZZA: Yeah. This is really interesting to me, Terry because I spent a lot of time asking him about lessons learned and he was, you know, very clear that it was an important chapter in his career. And - but like a lot of politicians who have a policy failure - you know, and we've seen this with President Obama, we've seen this with President Bush, - Paul Ryan's take away from the Social Security disaster in 2005 is that it wasn't so much, the problem was not so much the merits of the policy, but it was a communications problem, that Bush didn't sell it properly. As he said to me, you can't put the engineers in charge of the marketing department. And so his lesson in 2005 was, you know, the next time you come up with a big bold, you know, transformational agenda, make sure you've got the marketing department in charge of selling it.
And so that's been a lot of what he's been doing ever since is readying the Republican Party, when they get back into power, to think big and think about how you can radically transform the government without getting voted out of office, frankly. And that's created some tension within the Republican Party now.
GROSS: The way you describe it, Congressman Ryan is hoping that if Mitt Romney wins the presidency, that Ryan will have a lot of influence over that presidency. Is he trying to influence Mitt Romney now, as far as you can tell? And if so, how?
LIZZA: Yeah. And I think his pressure point was the primaries. That was the moment where everything's sort of up for grabs, right? The way that Ryan played this was he knew that he had to make his budgets something that all the candidates had to take a position on so that they would be partly locked in, in the general election.
That's when his sort of leverage was at its maximum. You know, what he told me is that he doesn't want presidential candidates running on vague platitudes, and he was very clear in saying that Mitt Romney has already endorsed this set of ideas and there's no reason for him to run away from them now and that he very clearly wants Romney to embrace them.
I think we're going to know in the next few months and we'll know at the convention and we'll know when we start seeing a little bit more detail from Mitt Romney about whether he decides to be a true Ryan Republican or if he and his pollsters and campaign strategists decide that Paul Ryan is leading the Republican Party over the cliff the way that he arguably did in 2005 and they need to distance Mitt Romney from Paul Ryan and his ideas.
And you could see an argument for either way. You could see some Republican strategists saying you know what? The country is polarized. This is an election about big, bold contrasts and we want to run on the Ryan agenda to turn out conservatives in record numbers. I think that's a minority view but there are some people who argue that.
I think it's much more likely that Mitt Romney will - if he's able to and if conservatives will let him - he starts to subtly distance himself from some of these ideas. Because it's not easy as a Republican running on a plan that will simply end the current Medicare system and transfer it into a voucher system. That's a tough sale in places like Florida. Right?
It's not easy running on a plan that would gut Medicaid, the program for the poor. And, you know, you see this on the Democratic side. The Democrats and the Obama campaign, they are highlighting Ryan. They are highlighting Ryan's budget. They want to have that debate. And so I think that's the tension. That's the debate right now inside the Romney campaign, is do we distance ourself from Paul Ryan or do we embrace him?
GROSS: There was a while when a lot of political watchers were saying that Ryan was on the short list of vice presidential running mates for Mitt Romney.
GROSS: Are you very skeptical of that?
LIZZA: I have to say I'm skeptical because, you know, I didn't get into this in the piece but, you know, you talk to the pollsters and the campaign strategists and they are very convincing that this set of ideas is not an electoral winner. Now, Ryan will say, and he said to me, well, the pollsters always say, you know, don't do this, don't do that. Don't act boldly.
And I think he believes he's gotten pretty far by acting as bold as he has. And so - I don't know. I think Romney is a - if we've learned anything about him through his life it's that he's a very cautious person. And, I mean, running with Paul Ryan - just set aside the agenda that Paul Ryan would represent. He's a relatively young guy. He's 42. He's only served in the House of Representatives.
He's never had any private sector experience outside of his brief stint as a marketing consultant for his family business. Just in terms of a resume, Paul Ryan doesn't exactly scream, you know, I'm ready to be president if something happens to Mitt Romney. So I think that's the first problem. The second problem is the ideological one.
Do you want to be associated - do you want to embrace the person in the Republican Party who's now known as the most, you know, one of the most ideological members of that party? But, on the other hand, you have a lot of smart conservatives and smart Republicans cheering this idea on. There are a lot of Republicans who wanted Paul Ryan to run for president back in that period. You probably remember that period when there was a lot of dissatisfaction with Romney and Perry and the other candidates. And people were cheering for Ryan to run. So I would put him on the sort of tail end of, you know, not quite the short list but the mid-sized list. So I'm skeptical.
GROSS: My guest is Ryan Lizza, Washington correspondent for The New Yorker. We're talking about his article in the current edition titled "Fussbudget: How Paul Ryan Captured the G.O.P." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ryan Lizza, the Washington correspondent for The New Yorker magazine. He's also covering the presidential campaign. His current piece is called "Fussbudget: How Paul Ryan Captured the G.O.P." So let me end with something I'm really interested in your take on, and in how this has been affecting you as a reporter.
The New York Times recently reported that campaign officials in the Obama administration will only give quotes to reporters if the reporter agrees to email the quote for approval before the publication.
GROSS: Before you publish you have to get the approval of somebody from the administration. And the reporter for the Times, Jeremy Peters, wrote that the quotations come back redacted, stripped of colorful metaphors, colloquial language and anything even mildly provocative and that the press office has veto power over what statements can be quoted and attributed by name.
GROSS: Have you been agreeing to those terms? If so, why? And how has it been affecting you?
LIZZA: So the first thing to say is that it's become increasingly difficult to get officials to talk on the record and, you know, I've been doing this for 15 years now and it's harder now than ever to just get people to sit down with you and have a conversation like we're having right now; an on-the-record conversation where you, Terry, are free to use anything I said.
That's really rare. And why is it rare? I think there's a little bit of blame that the press has to take here in that what gets played up on cable news and now on Twitter and other social media are the gaffes, are the misstatements, the stray statements, and those have an impact on these campaigns.
And I think that environment has made most people at the White House especially absolutely panicked about putting especially policy people on the record with journalists. And so we have a real transparency problem here in that the needs of Barack Obama's re-election campaign, which is don't let anyone at the White House say anything stupid or that could be used against us, conflict directly with the needs of an open and transparent government.
And so my experience with this, how it goes down is you want to interview official X and they say, look, how about I talk to you off the record. Off the record means, you know, you can't use any of the quotes. But if I say something that's, you know, so interesting and that you really want to use, come back to me, tell me what that is, and I'll see if I will go on the record with that statement.
And that's often how this unfolds. Now, so the dicey thing is, OK, what if you go back to that official and they want to change their quote? Do you allow that? Do you not allow that? If they change their quote, you know, what does that mean for your readers? So I'm of the opinion that it's not necessarily a crime to have an off-the-record conversation with an official, right? Everyone does that. And it's not so - and there's no crime in then asking them to put something on the record. Where it becomes dicey is when they want to adjust it, when they want to change it. And that's where as a reporter you have to put your foot down and say, no, that's not what you said. I'm not going to do that.
GROSS: And I just wonder if, as a Washington reporter covering the presidential campaign, if you're often frustrated with the media and with social media for picking up gaffes or for picking up the spin that somebody on one side or another wants to make into a major gaffe. You know, like they want to really embarrass their opponent so they call attention to a gaffe and then everybody picks up on it and it becomes a two-day story.
LIZZA: Yeah. Look, I don't want to pretend that I'm, like, high and mighty and above that because I go on Twitter and I go on cable and, you know, you inevitably talk about this stuff. And so, you know, sometimes you do feel a little guilty. You know, for example, Romney's statement in the U.K. the other day is a perfect example.
He went there and he said that the preparations, or some of the security issues were disconcerting. Now, look, everyone in Britain had been saying that. It was patently true what he said, but it turned into this major gaffe. I suppose, you know, the substantive argument is because it wasn't diplomatic. But it marred his entire trip abroad. And you think, well, is that really the most important thing that happened on that trip?
Well, I don't know. Maybe. He didn't really have - it wasn't a very substantive trip otherwise. But, yeah, I think about this all the time, Terry. I think that way that cable news and especially now with Twitter, where both sides are trying to drive the story of the day and they know that what works in the short form media is gaffes or silly statements and both sides play this game - it's having a major impact in our ability to get these guys, you know, these men and women, to talk to you in an open and honest way.
Even when you tell them, you know, I'm going to put the whole transcript online. Well, maybe that's a little bit better from their perspective but then someone can just take a little excerpt or a little snippet and use it in an ad. But it's all being driven by their fear of some small piece being taken out of context and causing the candidate harm. And so, I don't see how that's going to change, at least in the midst of a presidential campaign.
I will say I thought that in 2009 when the Obama administration first came in, they were relatively good about letting people sit down for on-the-record interviews if they thought you were working on a substantive piece of journalism. But as we've gotten closer to the election, it's become much, much more closed.
GROSS: Well, Ryan Lizza, a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.
LIZZA: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Ryan Lizza is Washington correspondent for The New Yorker magazine. His article in the current edition is titled "Fussbudget: How Paul Ryan Captured the G.O.P." You'll find a link to it on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show. And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.