Among prospective Republican presidential candidates, Rep. Paul Ryan is unique. He puts policy ahead of politics.
That’s not to say the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee doesn’t have a good ear for what plays in GOP politics. But he made clear in a recent breakfast session with reporters sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor and in other interviews that his focus is easing domestic poverty, an issue he has spent weeks, if not years, exploring.
If Ryan becomes chairman next year of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee as expected, his first priority would be a tax overhaul designed to reshape the pattern of federal spending, while giving the GOP a more positive image heading into 2016.
“We need to define ourselves by what we are in favor of just as much as what we’re opposed to,” he said Sunday on CBS' “Face the Nation.”
Ever since Mitt Romney selected the 44-year-old Wisconsin congressman as his running mate, there has been speculation about a 2016 presidential bid. That’s although defeated vice presidential nominees have mostly lost subsequent White House bids and no House member has been elected president since 1880.
But Ryan seemed neither interested at the breakfast in discussing 2016 nor concerned about the possible head-starts of potential rivals.
“I’ve consciously decided not to think about my personal ambitions or personal career moves,” he said. “The fact of it is that I’m focusing on policy right now, the problems we have in front of us. And in 2015, at the appropriate time, (wife) Janna and I will sit down and have the proper deliberations and conversations.”
His vehicle is the antipoverty plan he proposed shortly before Congress’ August vacation and which he spells out more completely in his new book, “The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea.”
He says his plan does not cut the $800 billion the federal government spends on programs for the poor but that it would consolidate 11 into a single “opportunity grant” that states would decide how to spend, subject to federal approval. The plan also would expand the earned income tax credit, which encourages the poor to work.
But it has encountered some of the same liberal criticism – and even organized protests on his book tour – as his controversial 2011 budget did: It hurts poor people and gives too much say to states that often provide an insufficient social safety net.
Though Ryan’s proposals made him a controversial budget chairman, he has reached out to Democrats, notably teaming last year with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., on a two-year budget that ended two years of partisan wrangling.
On most issues, Ryan’s views seem similar to potential GOP presidential rivals. Though he has long favored immigration reform, he agreed it can’t be done now “because of the demonstrated distrust of the president in enforcing the laws.” He joined other Republicans to oppose extending the Export-Import Bank, calling it “representative of some of the crony capitalism we have in Washington.”
He denounced White House warnings against a possible impeachment move against President Barack Obama as “a ridiculous gambit by the president and his political team to try and change the narrative, raise money and turn out their base for an upcoming election, which they feel is not going to go their way.”
He backed the GOP leadership suit aimed at curbing Obama, but added he did not think the president’s alleged misdeeds meets impeachment’s “high crimes and misdemeanors level.”
And on “Face the Nation,” he called Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2013 drive to shut down the government over Obamacare “a suicide mission.”
Neither there nor elsewhere has Ryan ruled out seeking the presidency.
But he gives the impression that he might be happier drafting a policy agenda for the next Republican administration – and then trying to help it pass.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.