Paul Ryan: Romney's wild card

He is the likeable but uncompromising Republican candidate for vice-president, who has just lit the fuse under the 2012 election. By Rupert Cornwell

Vice-presidential candidates come in many shades. Some, like Dick Cheney, have heft. Others are picked for their ability to swing a state – as when LBJ delivered his native Texas for John F Kennedy in 1960. Some (the patrician Lloyd Bentsen comes to mind) should have been running for president themselves. A few should never have been allowed within a million miles of national office (think Sarah Palin). Rarely, though, does the No 2 define the ticket. That however threatens to be the case with Paul Ryan.

He's been the designated running mate for only a week, and the Republican convention in Tampa, Florida, is still nine days away. But already Ryan and his austere economic vision dominate the campaign, overshadowing the stilted and impenetrable Mitt Romney who will actually be Barack Obama's opponent in November. When he unveiled Ryan last Saturday, aboard the USS Wisconsin, the clumsy-tongued Romney introduced him as "the next President of the United States." Slips, one is tempted to say, don't get much more Freudian than that.

Romney, the Mormon missionary and businessman who became the successful Republican governor of a liberal state and seems to change his views as other men change shirts, fits no simple American paradigm. But Paul Ryan does – the wholesome kid from Middle America with an uplifting life story, who conquered adversity and then went on to make very good indeed.

He was born and raised in a middle-class Catholic family in Janesville, southern Wisconsin, a prototypical mid-sized rustbelt city of the Midwest, where GM used to have an assembly plant and Parker Pens once thrived. When he was 16, he found his father, a lawyer, dead in his bed of a heart attack. Some children might have been traumatised by the event. Ryan, by all accounts, was galvanised, more than ever certain that people must make their own way in life – a view at the heart of his self-reliant economic creed now set to be the central issue of election 2012.

The Ryan of Janesville (where he now lives with his wife and three young children in a sturdy redbrick mansion formerly owned by a Parker heir) was the teenager any family would be proud of. He excelled at high school, worked at McDonald's and loved the outdoor life, in particular deer hunting. To this day, he is a devotee of Wisconsin's four best-known contributions to national happiness: bratwurst, beer, cheese and the Green Bay Packers football team.

The early deaths of his father, grandfather and great grandfather also convinced Ryan of the importance of physical fitness. He may have been one of the most influential Congressmen in Washington these past few years, but that has not interfered with his gruelling workout schedule in the Capitol Hill gym.

Today virtually everyone who follows the US presidential race knows two things about Paul Ryan. One is that he has a splendidly "ripped" physique, carrying a mere 8 per cent in body fat. The other, even less relevant to his political career, but irresistibly bizarre, is that he loves "noodling" – a sport where you jump into a river or lake and catch catfish with your bare hands. "I know it sounds crazy, but it's really exhilarating," Ryan has said.

What is relevant to his political career is the development of his conservative economics. They began to emerge even at high school, and crystallised at university. There he became a devotee of the liberal economists Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman and a follower of Ayn Rand – the novelist-philosopher who preached individualism and opposed altruism. These days, Ryan claims to have abandoned Rand's teachings because of her atheism, but for years he made her seminal book Atlas Shrugged required reading for his Congressional staff.

His political ambitions were evident early: "Paul was always a politician," a friend from his college days told The New York Times. "He was friendly with everybody. He was into debating the issues, and I always knew he was a conservative Republican." In 1992, the year he graduated in economics from Miami University in Ohio, Ryan volunteered on his first political campaign (for the local congressman, now Speaker of the House, John Boehner), and put in a stint in Washington as a staff economist for Wisconsin's Republican senator Bob Kasten. But Kasten lost his seat, and Ryan moved to Empower America, an advocacy group founded by such conservative luminaries as Jeane Kirkpatrick, Ronald Reagan's envoy to the UN, Reagan's one-time Education Secretary Bill Bennett, and, most importantly, Jack Kemp.

If Ryan ever had a substitute father, it was probably Jack Kemp. The two first got to know each other during Ryan's time with Kasten, who was a close friend of Kemp. At Empower America, Ryan became Kemp's alter ego. When Kemp ran for president in 1996, Ryan was his speechwriter. From Kemp more than anyone, today's vice-presidential nominee gained his unflinching belief in supply-side, trickle-down economics, that tax cuts and a slimmed-down government were the key to lasting growth.

From his mentor, Ryan acquired not just a political philosophy, but a political style as well. Kemp was a happy warrior, an energetic optimist. Economics may be the dismal science, but like Kemp, Ryan practises it with a smile. He may not have the genuine sympathy for those who drew life's short straws that made Kemp such an appealing politician. But even Democrats agree Ryan is a nice guy, at least able to discuss the issues in a reasonable fashion. Or as The Times columnist Maureen Dowd, famous for her sweet smile and strychnine-tipped pen, put it, "he's the cutest package that cruelty ever came in".

His broad appeal though was undeniable. In Wisconsin, where Ryan in 1998 won the first of seven terms in Congress in the seat covering his native Janesville, he has prevailed in a state that normally votes Democrat in presidential elections, in a district that was long a Democratic stronghold. Over the past 13 years, he has emerged as the driving intellectual force of the Republican right – a politician who anticipated the Tea Party by a decade, but is now one of the movement's biggest heroes. All the more remarkably, he has acquired this status despite being the quintessential "Washington insider" – think-tanker, then Congressman – normally reviled by Tea Partiers. Ryan however comes across as the sweet-faced iconoclast.

Nor is his conservatism confined to economics. That fondness for hunting makes him a passionate defender of gun rights. On abortion, Ryan is even more of a fundamentalist, and has co-sponsored Bills declaring that life begins at conception, that would give foetuses the legal rights of people. For the social right, too, he is a certified true believer.

All of which made him a compelling pick for Romney, whose campaign by early August had seemed fatally comatose, conspicuous only for gaffes and an inability to take advantage of the weaknesses of a highly vulnerable incumbent. A jolt of excitement was needed – and the youthful, attractive and articulate Ryan has provided it.

But he's a risk as well. Republicans are an ideological party, ever in search of a master ideologist. Once Newt Gingrich, architect of the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress, filled that role. Now it is Ryan, the policy wonk, the inspiration of the 2010 Republican takeover, the Chairman of the House Budget committee who is said to understand the federal budget as no other man alive. He is the man with the answers, set out in the "Ryan Budget" passed by the House earlier this year, which prescribes deep tax cuts and sweeping reform of welfare, and the costly public health programmes, Medicare and Medicaid.

There are, alas, just two snags. For one, the cuts in Medicare in particular are grist to the Obama mill, as Democrats depict Romney and Ryan as twin faces of a malign Republican Janus, a fusion of vulture capitalist and heartless theorist, bent on making the rich richer on the back of ordinary jobs outsourced to the cheapest country available. Even Gingrich once denounced the Ryan plan as "right-wing social engineering."

The other snag is that no serious economist has managed to make Ryan's numbers add up. His plans might slash the size of government, but still leave America saddled with massive deficits for decades. Paul Ryan may be driving the Republican ticket, but he may also drive it to its downfall.

A life in brief

Born: Paul Davis Ryan, 29 January 1970, Janesville, Wisconsin

Family: the youngest of four children of Elizabeth and Paul Ryan, he was brought up a Catholic. Married Janna, a tax attorney, in 2000; they have three children.

Education: Attended Joseph A Craig High School in Janesville. Majored in economics and political science at Miami University, Ohio.

Career: Having interned with Republican Sen. Bob Kasten, on graduating he took a congressional position as a staff economist in Kasten's office. Worked his way through committee staff assignments, a prominent think-tank and top legislative advisory roles before being elected to the House of Representatives in 1998, aged 28. He has defended his seat every two years since.

He says: "Our founders got it right when they wrote in the Declaration of Independence that our rights come from nature and nature's God, not from government."

They say: "He's the cutest package that cruelty ever came in." – Maureen Dowd, The Times

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