Where in the World Is Paul Ryan?

For the moment he is irrelevant. That will not last.

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) holds his weekly news briefing.
Paul Ryan has largely sat on the sidelines since the Novemeber election. Here, Ryan campaigns in Ohio in October with Mitt Romney

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

Right after the 2012 election, when Republicans trudged glumly back to Washington, Speaker of the House John Boehner found two jobs for Paul Ryan. By Ryan’s request, he would stay on as chairman of the Budget Committee—he’d be the only chairman holding on after his six-year term at the top of a committee had ended. By necessity, he would also join a working group to help Boehner negotiate a way around the “fiscal cliff.” Ryan would partner with Ways and Means Committee chairman Dave Camp and Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Fred Upton in crafting proposals, strategizing, and calculating. If the White House wanted to talk to Ryan, congressional liaison Rob Nabors knew where to find him.

It’s been a month. While the White House has been talking to Boehner, Ryan hasn’t been so busy. The B-team of Camp, Ryan, and Upton has stayed on the bench. Ryan hasn’t recently met or talked to key negotiators. Ryan’s big moment in the talks, so far, came with the three-page offer that House Republicans sent the president on Dec. 3. According to National Review, Ryan “worked with Boehner to craft” the document. They spent two pages explaining how proud they were of Ryan’s budgets and two paragraphs offering $800 billion of unspecified revenue and $1.2 trillion of unspecified cuts. And the White House rejected that at the speed of Twitter.

Paul Ryan is irrelevant, but that can’t last. No one in modern times has lost a national election and returned to such a powerful role in Congress. John Kerry’s consolation prize was minority status in the Senate. After his loss, George McGovern was so marginalized that he considered moving to England.

The chairman of the House Budget Committee can’t be marginalized. For two years, Ryan was the de facto intellectual leader of the GOP, introducing and passing spending plans that nearly every Republican supported. He’s got two more years of that on the calendar, and his rank-and-file members are thrilled. “The American people are looking to him for ideas,” Colorado Rep. Cory Gardner told me last month. Gardner and other freshman fans of Ryan believe that the vice-presidential campaign, even if a loss, still helped him; without that, Americans “might not have known who he was.”

Ryan’s absence from the “cliff” debate has actually helped his clout—among Republicans. They resent their current position. They passed their budgets (Ryan’s budgets). The media doesn’t seem to take that seriously. Obama’s Democrats haven’t pushed a budget through since 2009; the media doesn’t care.

“Our perspective is, ‘Yes, we think our budget is the way forward,’ ” says Rep. Sean Duffy, a freshman from northwestern Wisconsin and a Ryan stalwart. “The president rejected it. There was an effort to be reasonable and to meet the concerns he had, so we came off the budget a little, but the president needs to lead.”

That’s the polite version of the sentiment. In the Senate, utterly marginalized by the Boehner-Obama talks, Republicans resent that the “cliff” negotiation is so secretive. In a real budget debate, says Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, “You have hearings on it. You have witnesses. You have a debate about what you want, then you have mark-up. That’s the way this should work … as opposed to seeing on the news: Do Speaker Boehner and President Obama get along? Is it going to be $1 for $2? For $3? That’s drivel. That’s meaningless.”

But it’s happening because neither Ryan nor the White House made any steps to work out their differences. At key moments of possible compromise—on the Simpson-Bowles commission, during the debt-limit crisis—he’s kicked over the table. Ryan voted against the final Simpson-Bowles recommendation because it “didn’t address health care” and raised taxes. In the summer of 2011, when Boehner kept bringing versions of a “grand bargain” back to the Hill, Ryan argued against passing anything that raised taxes. He fretted that a deal would smooth Barack Obama’s path to re-election.

During that campaign, Obama was able to exploit Ryan’s calcified positions, hitting him for the specifics of his Medicare reform and the vagueness of his cuts. Ryan’s 2012 and 2013 budgets proposed $2.2 trillion in discretionary spending cuts, but only third-party think-tank researchers bothered to calculate what would get lopped off. Ryan would show audiences a series of slides about the national debt to emphasize the need for cuts. There were no slides about his actual budget.

What’s changed since Obama won? Nothing, really. Ryan has given a few on-the-record interviews, mostly to local media. His longest stint in front of the camera was a speech at the Jack Kemp Foundation’s leadership awards, where the main attraction was Sen. Marco Rubio. “You know any good diners in New Hampshire or Iowa?” asked Ryan. “I’m sure the press won’t read much into that.”

Ryan’s speech described the 2012 election as a “close” and temporary loss. “We have a compassionate vision based on ideas that work,” he said, “but sometimes we don’t do a good job of laying out that vision.” There are two schools of Republican thought on the election: one that believes that the party needs to shift on some issues and one that believes that all that is needed is better messaging. Ryan was walking through door No. 2. He wanted Republicans to apply “the welfare-reform mindset with equal vigor across the spectrum of anti-poverty programs.” But he said less about how than he’d offered in his campaign speeches.

And that, still, was more than he needed to do. As long as Republicans are in a horrific negotiating position, Ryan’s going to be less visible. He’ll be out front again in four-odd months, when he proposes his next budget. There’s just no real negotiation happening between the congressman who would propose massive reforms and the president who would sign them. By ignoring him now, the White House will allow him to say that the serious work of tax and entitlement reform started with House Republicans.

Until then, Ryan can lend Republicans his brand. On Thursday, Boehner held a mostly useless update on fiscal-cliff talks that featured one fresh hook. He had a new chart, provided by Ryan, labeled “Spending Is the Problem,” with the slogan helpfully hashtagged for maximum tweetage. The chart contrasted projected revenue from higher taxes with the projected growth of the federal budget. “It’s this issue—spending!” said Boehner, waving his arm at the chart. “Go back to polling—most people would agree that spending is a much bigger problem than raising taxes.”

The chart and its designer weren’t particularly relevant to the matter at hand. They were a preview of what, and who, would matter again next year.