I called Paul Ryan in the winter of 2010, as I was making the transition from Republican politics in Illinois to conservative new media with Andrew Breitbart. He answered from his car, as he was driving to his tree stand near his home town of Janesville, Wisconsin. He was about to take over as chair of the House budget committee–a critical event in his own career, as well as in the history of the Republican Party and the country itself.
But Ryan was more interested in discussing bow hunting than budgets. “Man, look at the buck on that truck!” he exclaimed as he checked out the traffic coming back in the opposite direction.
The essential thing to know about Paul Ryan is the value he places on life at home in Janesville–with family, with friends, and in the woods. He puts his wife and children first, limiting travel when Congress is out of session. He declined to run for President last fall because of the stress a long campaign would place on his family.
Even with a limited travel schedule, Ryan has done all he can to help other candidates who share his fiscal priorities, both through his Prosperity PAC and through personal appearances on their behalf. When I ran for Congress in 2010, Ryan came to Chicago to help me–and headlined the single largest fundraiser in the history of any Republican campaign within a City of Chicago district, raising roughly $150,000 in a single day.
Also there on hand to greet Ryan were a group of demonstrators organized by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), my opponent at the time. They broke into the luncheon before Ryan was due to speak, waving placards and screaming about Social Security. Ryan, sitting next to me, smiled knowingly. “When they do that, you know you’re winning,” he said.
We did not win on Election Day–but we did our part to keep Schakowsky bottled up in her own district, helping neighboring districts swing into the Republican column. And Schakowsky, who had evidently been assigned by Democratic Party leaders to contain Ryan, has been unable to stop his rise. The aggressive Mediscare tactics that she, in large part, invented have not only failed in 2012–they have actually backfired, badly.
Democrats’ early glee over Ryan’s selection as Mitt Romney’s running mate has given way to concern, and even panic, as the Republican ticket has seized the high ground–and the lead–among seniors. Worries among establishment Republicans that Ryan would be a drag on down-ticket races for the U.S. Senate and House have disappeared. He is now seen as a huge asset to the party–and to a country in a leadership crisis.
Ryan’s address to the Republican National Convention this evening will be critical to the success of the entire event. As much as Romney must introduce himself to voters this week, Ryan has even more to do to let the American people know who he really is. So far, he has been a solid presence on the ticket–and a boost for Romney, who has been more aggressive and confident since Ryan’s arrival. Yet Ryan must still seal the deal.
Look for applause from the Wisconsin delegates tonight–but also know that the Ryan cheering section includes thousands of Tea Party activists he has inspired, and millions of Americans who have begun to respond to his message. His challenge tonight is to reach beyond, to show them the other side of the fiscal hawk whose ideas have come to define our national debate, the family man with a tree stand in Wisconsin winter country.