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The fascinating political evolution of Paul Ryan
The 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee is recasting himself as the "bleeding heart" successor to Jack Kemp. Will it work?
 
Paul Ryan has changed.
Paul Ryan has changed. (Illustration by Sarah Eberspacher | Photos courtesy Getty Images)

Paul Ryan's new book The Way Forward is meant to be bought, not read.

You buy a book like this because you're in a conservative book club, or you're a big Paul Ryan fan, and you feel obliged. It's like voting, but it costs money. Publishers commission these books hoping to get a big payoff if and when the author is nominated for president and suddenly a much larger share of the country feels obliged to vote, er, buy Ryan.

But there's more to The Way Forward than that, largely because Ryan is an increasingly important and intriguing figure in Republican politics. His persona evolves — often, it seems — in tandem with the felt-needs of the GOP. Ryan has always been a little further to the right than the average elected Republican. But that didn't stop him from corralling votes for Medicare Part-D when George W. Bush needed them. Then when the GOP constituents needed someone who looked good under a green eyeshade, he became a much sterner budget watcher, and strenuous fiscal conservative.

The first half of the Ryan book is a biography as starched and colorless as his collars. But the second half of The Way Forward is fascinating. It gives a view of what Ryan wants to be now and over the next two years, possibly as he contemplates a run for the presidency. And make no mistake: Ryan is transformed.

No longer is Paul Ryan the P90X-ripping, budget-slashing devotee of Ayn Rand that Democrats gleefully caricatured as someone who wanted to push grandma off a cliff. Today he's the geeky white guy dancing badly at a black church, and then biting his lip and nodding to signal how much he is listening, and learning. He's putting in an effort to expand his horizons personally. He is undergoing a political conversion, or at least a conversion on political rhetoric.

Quite literally, Paul Ryan experiences a kind of Come-To-Frank-Luntz moment when someone asks him who he is talking about when he refers to some people as "takers." Ryan had in the past adopted the language of "makers and takers" to describe people who are paying more in taxes than they receive in benefits, and people who are receiving more benefits than what they pay. Ryan says this language was just in the air at the time he adopted it. And it was. A Nation of Takers was the scorching title to a sobering (and sober) book by Nicholas Eberstadt about the shape of America's entitlement state. Eberstadt's book is exactly the kind of doomsday look into the spreadsheets that Ryan was getting into then.

Today, Ryan won't disavow the math, exactly, but he has discarded the implied insult he attached to it.

[W]hile the problem it depicts is real and worrisome, the phrase "makers and takers" communicated a lot more than just the dilemma I was trying to describe. That day at the fair was the first time I really heard the way it sounded. As I stood there, listening to the guy from the Democrats' tent lay into me, I thought, "Holy cow. He's right." [The Way Forward]

Ryan also talks about his experiences of reaching out to constituencies where there aren't many Republicans. In what is probably the most substantive political point in the book, Ryan says what many already suspect, that the 2012 election proved that "focusing heavily on simply turning out our traditional coalition is a losing strategy."

Ryan does what a politician in this position should do — he takes his lumps just by showing up for constituent events among people who are not naturally aligned to him. Black constituents often tell him to his face that they disagree with him. "[A]t least they were telling me, personally, instead of just some pollster canvassing the neighborhood," he writes. He says that these events communicate that a person who has conservative politics can still care enough to show up and talk to minority constituents.

This is the right thing politically, but it's also the right thing to do, period. The GOP should follow Ryan's example. It would be good for the country. Citizens deserve the competition for their votes that gerrymandering and polarization deny. No major party should effectively ignore an entire demographic or geographic group of Americans.

Now, there are no great revelations in this book. It's filled with easy-to-understand anecdotes about the malfunctioning of the health-care system before and after ObamaCare, and the efficiency of market-oriented solutions. These will be repeated many, many times by Ryan in the medium-term of his political life.

Ryan also repeats Jack Kemp's name over and over again, almost as much as he does Reagan's. Kemp was a Republican who worked hard to make GOP principles appealing to urban and minority voters. He was HUD secretary under George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole's vice presidential candidate. Kemp is an odd figure, combining the supply-side politics of a Dan Quayle with the social idealism of a George Romney. He referred to himself as a "bleeding-heart conservative."

And a bleeding-heart conservative sounds great in theory. In a way, it's what George W. Bush attempted with his "compassionate conservative" brand. But Kemp was never really a national figure, and his unique policy ideas never really got purchase among their supposed beneficiaries. He was admired more than followed. He made Republicans feel better about themselves, without winning great victories. Maybe the time is ripe for a return to Kempism. But I have my doubts.

 
Michael Brendan Dougherty is senior correspondent at TheWeek.com. He is the founder and editor of The Slurve, a newsletter about baseball. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, ESPN Magazine, Slate and The American Conservative.

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