In his hometown, Ryan pick energizes both supporters and critics
JANESVILLE — After covering Rep. Paul Ryan since his first run for Congress in 1998, I’ve only heard of one occasion where he’s buckled under pressure and changed his mind.
Last March, Ryan was back home in Janesville to take his young sons on a Cub Scout outing. It’s the same outing my son’s Boy Scout troop has gone on for years, and involves a weekend exploring the inside of a huge cave near Richland Center, getting wet and muddy and sleeping among the elements.
My son and I weren’t on this particular outing, but upon returning, our Scout master retold the story of Ryan and his sons showing up with plans to spend only the day. But after spending time with the other Scouts in attendance, Ryan’s sons begged their father to stay overnight.
That makes it the cave where Ryan, who last weekend was picked to be Mitt Romney’s running mate, caved.
Members of our troop helped put together sleeping arrangements for the Ryans, and the outing was successful by all accounts.
Ryan, an avid outdoorsman, always has made it a priority to not let his work totally overshadow his responsibilities as a father.
It’s not uncommon at Scout outings like these for dads to sneak out to check emails and make a work phone call. Of course, in Ryan’s case, it was to Speaker of the House John Boehner.
I relay this story to illustrate that in Janesville, Ryan is seen as just another one of the neighbors. Although there are plenty of people in town who don’t agree with his politics, Ryan has what pollsters call a high likeability factor.
Likely that’s one of the intangibles that convinced Romney to bring Ryan aboard.
Of course, that alone won’t be enough to claim victory in November.
It’s hard not to cross paths with Paul Ryan or members of his large clan in Janesville.
He grew up on the other end of my street. (Granted it’s the nicer end. It’s where the Ryans, Cullens and Fitzgeralds wielded their influence in the 1940s and ’50s as Janesville grew.)
Growing up in a house around the corner from his current home helped Ryan hatch the secret plan that allowed him to travel to Virginia undetected last Saturday, where Romney introduced Ryan as his running mate.
In interviews with the national media later in the day last Saturday, Ryan explained how, as reporters kept watch at the front of his house, he snuck out the back door, cut through the trails of the ravine behind his house, passed the tree house he built as a kid and popped up in the driveway of his childhood home on the other side of the block.
He was picked up by an aide and whisked off to the airport in time for the dramatic announcement.
The street that Ryan grew up on however, is a metaphor for the economic turmoil that both Janesville and the nation have suffered from since 2008.
I live sandwiched between a retired architect and former GM worker. There are at least two foreclosed homes on our block that my neighbors and I watch over to make sure they stay looking nice.
Two homes have sold recently, which has the neighborhood feeling more optimistic, but as Ryan likes to tell audiences at his regular listening sessions, many of his high school buddies have lost their jobs — some when the GM Janesville Assembly plant closed and others when the economy ground to a halt.
Getting people back to work will remain one of the storylines of the campaign.
It’s hard to say what swayed Ryan to agree to become Mitt Romney’s running mate. For years, he’s used the popular line, “Anyone can be president, but only I can raise my kids,” to throw cold water on speculation that he has higher political ambitions. He passed on a chance to become speaker of the House when Republicans regained control of the chamber following the 2010 midterm elections.
He also passed on the opportunity to run for the Senate after Herb Kohl announced his retirement.
But he never really closed the door on becoming vice president. At the time, there was speculation that Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels would get in the race, and that Ryan would be the perfect running mate. In our cover story in May 2011, writer Todd Mishler quotes Ryan as saying, “That’s something down the road, and I’ll cross that bridge when and if they ask me. I know Mitch very well, and I expect his announcement within the next two or three weeks.”
When the announcement came, Daniels decided against running, but as it turned out, the bridge remained to be crossed, and Ryan took the walk last weekend.
Ryan remains a man of contradictions in his hometown. Residents were buzzing with pride all week about the possibility that a hometown kid would be vice president-- even if they never would vote for him.
In addition to being able to connect to people in a more natural way than Romney, Ryan brings with him ideas for tackling some of our country’s most vexing problems.
That’s what draws supporters to Ryan. They believe in his less-government-is-better approach, and they trust that he’ll have their best interests at heart.
But the details are what will complicate the race, and at the heart of Ryan’s economic plan are changes to Medicare that Ryan says will save the program.
His opponents say his plan will destroy it.
In the simplest terms, Ryan’s plan eliminates guaranteed payments for Medicare and replaces it with a premium support plan that gives people the freedom to choose medical care that best suits their personal needs. The changes wouldn’t affect those at or near retirement.
The plan takes decision making out of the hands of government and puts it into the hands of consumers.
However if costs rise faster than the premium support vouchers, seniors will be limited in the health care they can afford. In effect, the safety net would be gone.
Although a subplot to the national story, Ryan’s status as the Republican candidate for the 1st Congressional District became a lot more interesting last week as well.
In most cases, a candidate can’t run for two offices at the same time, Wisconsin law allows Ryan to run both for vice president and for his House seat.
Should Ryan win both, the House election would be voided and the governor would call a special election.
That would give Democratic challenger Rob Zerban a second shot at a seat that then would be vacant.
Zerban’s campaign has gained momentum over the summer, and unlike the Democrats that Ryan faced in his previous re-election campaigns, Zerban hasn’t been counted out by power brokers in either party.
Zerban was quick to seize on the news that Ryan would be on the Republican ticket. In a statement issued Saturday, Zerban said, “Once Wisconsinites and voters across our country learn the truth about Ryan's radical plot to end Medicare as we know it, de-fund women's health care and preserve tax breaks for millionaires, they'll vote against him not just once, but twice.”
When we interviewed Zerban in our offices in July, Zerban said he believed that Ryan’s stand on Medicare left him vulnerable.
Now, that debate will be played out on a national stage, which could help Zerban. Ryan also will have to somehow juggle two races.
Ryan brings policy specifics that Romney has been unwilling to risk. With it, Ryan also brings a conviction and unwavering confidence in his ideas.
If nothing else, unlike when he’s responding to the pleas of his children, you can be certain he won’t be swayed by his critics.