There is a mystery about Congressman Paul Ryan's new and very good book, "The Way Forward: Renewing the American Dream." Perhaps there are several mysteries.
Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee and Mitt Romney's vice presidential running mate, begins by writing at length about the place he has lived all his life, Janesville, a town of 60,000 in southern Wisconsin. It is rural, but it also has industry. Moreover it has Ryans. Sixty-seven of his cousins live nearby. The Ryans have lived there for generations along with other Catholics, Protestants and presumably citizens utterly oblivious to religion's call. But the point is that most of the citizens of Janesville are decent, law-abiding, can-do citizens. Ryan describes it as an ideal community to grow up in and to discover the American Idea. It is his idea of how we live as Americans. It is also the Founding Fathers' idea, and the basic idea of modern conservatism, of which Ryan is a leading member.
Ryan grew up very religious, very moral, and very can-do, but there were bumps along the way. At age 16, he found his father dead in bed, a victim of alcoholism and a heart attack. That is when the young man decided he could "sink or swim." He decided to swim, and while giving up his faith in college and taking aboard a bit too much recreational hooch, he applied himself to his studies in earnest and followed a regimen of strict physical fitness. Eventually, he gave up hard liquor, returned to the Church, and increasingly threw himself into what he calls "the battle of ideas," first in college, then in Washington as a junior member of the conservative group, Empower America, headed by Bill Bennett, Jack Kemp and Jeane Kirkpatrick. He returned to Janesville in 1998 and, ably assisted by a gang of Ryans, plus energetic others, he deposed his district's Democratic representative to the House of Representatives. Congressman Ryan was now ready to devote himself to public policy, a thing he loves almost as much as deer hunting.
Hence the second part of this well-written and well-paced book, "Where We Go From Here," in which he makes his famous apology. In the 2012 campaign, fetched by the report that 60 percent of the American people took some form of government subsidy, he began talking about "takers" and "makers." A listener objected to his characterization of "takers," and Ryan reflected: on the closing of General Motors' Janesville plant, leaving the town without its $220 million annual payroll; on the Social Security survival benefits that sustained him and his mother after his father's death; on his mother receiving Medicare. He writes, "I realized that I'd been careless with my language. The phrase gave insult where none was intended. Ultimately, it was also ineffective, because the problem I was trying to describe was not about our people. Rather, it was rooted in a very different philosophy of government that I believe threatens to destroy the American Idea."
The philosophy of government threatening the American Idea is progressivism. In the second half of his book, Ryan writes lucidly about how progressive programs have grown beyond the limits of the sustainable. How with new programs, such as Obamacare, we are approaching national bankruptcy. Then Ryan outlines very clearly how these extravagant, mostly unmonitored programs can be replaced with sustainable programs. He would repeal Obamacare and replace it with "market-based, patient-centered reforms." Before Social Security goes belly up, he would reform it with personal retirement accounts, among other reforms. He would reform taxes, return to sound money, end crony capitalism and adopt regulatory reform. All of this will have to be done eventually -- we are going broke. When Barack Obama took office, the national debt was $10.6 trillion. Today it is up to $17 trillion and growing. By 2024, the Congressional Budget Office predicts it will total $27 trillion. You could expropriate the wealth of the top 1 percent and you would still not cover our debt. What is more, the debt would continue to accumulate.
In a word, progressivism is moribund and it needs to be replaced. Ryan's book contains the blueprint to save the American Idea. Still, it is a mysterious book. In the memoir section of his book, he adumbrates a rising young man with near perfect character. In the policy section of his book, he lays out very compelling programs for getting America out of its present drear. Did Ryan intend to give us his credentials for the presidency? In the past he has convincingly argued that he is comfortable in the House of Representatives. Recently, I sense that he is wavering.
At dinner a month or so ago, there was a sense of urgency in his concern for the country. Now, in "The Way Forward," he quotes Mitt Romney as saying he is "deeply worried" about the wobbly direction of the country. Ryan adds, "That's what motivates me, too." Read the book, and I think you will agree with me. Ryan has the character and the programs to lead us out of this mess.