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Paul Ryan's supply-side roots run deep in Washington

Paul Ryan's belief that lower taxes spur the economy dates to his early work with Reagan tax guru Jack Kemp and other luminaries.

October 08, 2012|By Lisa Mascaro, Washington Bureau
  • Republican vice presidential candidate Paul D. Ryan campaigns in Clinton, Iowa. He's often reluctant to go into deep detail on his tax-cut plans at such events, but he has a PowerPoint presentation at the ready if he needs it.
Republican vice presidential candidate Paul D. Ryan campaigns in Clinton,… (Daniel Acker, Bloomberg )

OWENSVILLE, Ohio — Paul D. Ryan was plucked from Congress to be Mitt Romney's running mate largely on his reputation as the wonkish and charismatic House Budget Committee chairman, but under the evening sun at the county fairgrounds he was debating beer.

And ribs. And a regional favorite called Five Way, which is chili over spaghetti noodles topped with cheese, onions and beans.

The architect of the Republican Party's tough-love economic platform has proved particularly adept on the campaign trail with another aspect of political life: courting voters with an appealing enthusiasm, while sometimes skimming past thorny budget details.

Ryan deflected a pointed question during a recent "Fox News Sunday" interview about the potential cost of the Romney-Ryan tax plan, saying it "would take me too long."

Days later at a town hall meeting in Iowa, a woman wearing a jacket from his beloved Green Bay Packers sought more clarity after his five-slide PowerPoint presentation on federal spending and the debt. "Where are the answers? I mean, why aren't you more specific?" she asked.

As Ryan heads into Thursday's debate with Vice President Joe Biden, this ideological heir to a generation of conservative leaders will have an opportunity to counter an impression that he has evaded tough questions, and show off the knowledge and skills that excited his party as adding gravitas to their presidential ticket.

"It's hard to maintain one's dignity as an intellectual heavyweight while campaigning," said Robert L. Bixby, a veteran budget hawk who is executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan fiscal watchdog.

Ryan, who first worked in Congress as a college intern, has been cultivated over his 20-year career in Washington by some of the city's most influential GOP figures. His approach to economics embodies a political genealogy that stretches from Ronald Reagan to the tea party.

Among his most lasting influences was the supply-side economics guru Jack Kemp, who helped orchestrate Reagan's first tax cuts — which prompted an enduring debate over whether it was lower taxes or increased military spending that boosted the economy in those years.

Ryan became a speechwriter for Kemp shortly after interning on Capitol Hill in the early 1990s, and those who knew Kemp see his easy optimism and tax policy prescriptions reflected in the 42-year-old congressman from Wisconsin.

"The power of the personal, that's something that Paul learned from Dad," said Jimmy Kemp, a director at the Patton Boggs law firm, who recalled that his father kept in touch with Ryan until he died of cancer in 2009. "People don't care what you know until they know you care."

The Romney-Ryan plan would cut tax rates, bolster defense and reduce the federal government's role in Medicare and Medicaid. But protecting defense spending would require deep cuts in school lunches and other domestic mainstays. And some analyses have suggested that to reduce the deficit, Romney and Ryan would have to eliminate tax breaks that help the middle class, such as the home mortgage deduction.

But Ryan shares Kemp's unwavering belief that lower taxes would spur the economy, and the Packers fan who questioned Ryan said later that she was satisfied with his lengthy response.

"Every time we've done this, we have created economic growth," Ryan said.

The candidate's team disputes the notion that the Ryan on the stump is a watered-down version of the congressional Ryan. They point to many recent speeches — at one robust question-and-answer forum in Orlando, Fla., he broke out the PowerPoint slides that are now a staple at such events — as evidence that he provides more detail than either President Obama or Biden.

Obama characterized the Romney-Ryan approach as "trickle-down fairy dust" that was tried a generation ago and doesn't work. During the supply-side heyday of the Reagan years, the top marginal tax rate was slashed to 28% from 70%, but the nation's debt, which had been decreasing, spiked.

At the fairgrounds, Ryan dismissed Obama as someone who "can give lots of great speeches."

Critics have slighted Ryan for some convenient omissions on the campaign trail, such as when he blamed Obama for the nation's credit downgrade and the failure to adopt a bipartisan commission's plan to reduce the deficit. Ryan too had played a significant role in both events.

Others, though, see a talented politician able to silence his inner policy geek in favor of the savvy campaigner. A squeaky-voiced Ross Perot with confounding charts he is not. Hard-rock anthems punctuate his campaign stops. Amid easy banter about beer and chili, Ryan eagerly weaves in the economic theories he has pursued most of his adult life.

Since he was a 21-year-old intern in Washington, Ryan has refined his economics education. Dropping off the mail, he would chat with a top Republican aide, Cesar Conda, who lent Ryan books, which the young man marked up in the margins.

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