Paul Ryan's Secret Weapon

Mona Charen

8/23/2011 12:01:00 AM - Mona Charen
"The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity." -- W. B Yeats

Actually, contra Yeats, our best are full of passionate intensity -- except when it comes to running for president. The Tea Party shows no sign of obliging the media by fading away. Yet one after another, each of several promising prospects on the Republican bench -- Haley Barbour, Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan -- has begged off . . . or seemed to.

Gov. Rick Perry did take the plunge. And he is no slouch. As the governor who has presided over the most economically vibrant of American states at a time when the rest of country is beginning to feel downright frightened, his one-sentence summation is powerful -- "He will put America back to work." He delivers a fine speech (see his announcement for president), actually enjoys the process of pressing the flesh and campaigning (voters can always tell -- just ask Bill Clinton) and seems to be a prodigious fundraiser.

And yet, the rumor that Rep. Paul Ryan is considering the possibility of a run is even better news. A glance at the Electoral College map shows that a candidate from the vote-rich Midwest would be a better draw for Republicans than a southerner, since Republicans are likely to win the south anyway.

Ryan hoped, along with so many of us, that Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels would make the race. Daniels, like Ryan, is a cheerful but deep-dyed conservative who understands the existential risk that our national debt represents. Daniels called it the "new red menace" -- red ink that is.

All of the Republican candidates talk about spending and debt, but Paul Ryan is the acknowledged master of the subject, not just in Congress but also in the entire Republican Party. It is the Ryan budget that has come to define a party willing to make dramatic and politically risky cuts in the name of saving the country from bankruptcy. Ironically, it is the Ryan budget that would save Medicare -- not the blinkered denial that passes for the Democrats' plan. It is Ryan, with his mastery of detail combined with a sincerity rarely found among elected officials, who is best able to explain it.

He is, additionally, the most knowledgeable and articulate antagonist to Obamacare in the party -- one who has reduced the president to sputtering incoherence in a direct confrontation. In February 2010, during the health care debate, Ryan was among the Republican leaders who met with the president and Democratic leadership. In a six-minute presentation, Ryan eviscerated and embalmed Obamacare. The statistics rolled off his tongue with easy fluidity. He was direct and unflinching without being rude or needlessly aggressive. If that was a foreshadowing of what a presidential debate would look like, President Obama would be profoundly overmatched on this most critical issue.

Some worry that if Rep. Ryan were the Republican Party's standard-bearer, Republicans would then own his "unpopular" proposals for entitlement reform. This suggests that Republicans should nominate someone who is less than forthright on this critical issue for the nation's future. What's the point? There is only one path to entitlement reform and that's with an electoral mandate. You don't get a mandate if you run away from the issue.

Sure, an inexperienced Republican was defeated in a special House race in New York partly in response to the Ryan budget. But when Ryan himself explained his budget proposals at town hall meetings, he was generally well received.

Others object that electing a legislator without executive experience proved disastrous in the case of Barack Obama. But while executive experience is nice, it isn't everything. Abraham Lincoln lacked it. The chief trouble with Obama is what he believes, not that he has never been a governor. Besides, unlike Obama, Ryan has vaulted to leadership in the House over more senior legislators exactly because his mastery of policy is so widely acknowledged. On the hill, members of Congress are known as either workhorses or show horses. They are almost never both. Ryan is.

Finally, there is another reason that Ryan would be a formidable nominee -- he is likeable. Likeability is an important trait in any politician, of course, but it's particularly crucial for conservative Republicans, who will be reliably demonized by the Democrat-leaning press. If Ryan is the nominee, they will call him cruel, they will say he's an extremist and so on. But then voters will see his open expression, his calm demeanor, his reassuring intelligence and his altar boy smile, and say, "Nah, he's a good guy."