When numbers are the political weapon of choice, the Republicans turn to Paul Ryan to do their fighting. In prepping for the Feb. 25 televised health-care showdown with President Barack Obama, it was Ryan, a representative from southern Wisconsin's rolling hills and industrial enclaves, who was tasked with challenging the math of the Administration's $2.3 trillion health-care overhaul. At 40, and already on his sixth term, Ryan has the right mix of freshness and experience for the moment. In 2006 he leapfrogged past 13 more senior colleagues to become the House Budget Committee's ranking Republican. Now he's on a mission to spark serious debate about entitlement spending that he argues will "swallow us alive" if left unchecked.
Ryan feels the urgency of the problem so strongly that he isn't afraid to touch the third rail of American politics. In a recently revised 2008 proposal, he suggests partially privatizing Medicare and Social Security, the two biggest entitlements, to prevent their insolvency and curb debt. Not everyone agrees with him. And while Ryan predicts Armageddon on entitlements, he would eliminate income taxes on corporations, capital gains, and dividends, and retain all the Bush-era tax cuts set to expire this year—moves that could set the deficit zooming. But no one questions that his expertise is hard-earned. "I don't think anybody in the entire U.S. Congress knows budget implications and processes better than Paul," says Texas Republican Jeb Hensarling, one of his allies among House conservatives.
Ryan learned to mix numbers and politics from the late Jack Kemp, a fiscal conservative whose views on social issues were sometimes to the party's left. He went to work for Kemp at think tank Empower America when he was 23. Following the Kemp model, Ryan has voted to bar job discrimination against gays and counts as friends three of Wisconsin's Democrats: Senator Russ Feingold, whose family has been close to Ryan's for three generations; Representative Ron Kind, with whom he has teamed up to promote hunting and land conservation; and Representative Tammy Baldwin, the openly gay lawmaker whose district is next to his. "I am not a hater," says Ryan. "Jack Kemp was my political mentor, and I always thought that's the right approach and style—passionate about your beliefs but not insulting to people because they have beliefs that differ from yours."
Ryan's entitlements plan, "A Road Map for America's Future," would keep the current Medicare and Social Security system for people age 55 and older. Younger Americans could personally invest a third of their Social Security payroll taxes and, when Medicare-eligible, get an annual payment to buy private health insurance.
After he offered the latest version of the plan at a Jan. 27 news conference, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi described it as the GOP budget that "ends Medicare as we know it." House Republican Leader John Boehner quickly reminded reporters that the plan is Ryan's, not the GOP leadership's.
Pelosi's jibe aside, Democrats are often among Ryan's biggest admirers. Obama praised the plan as a "serious proposal." House Budget Chairman John Spratt Jr., a South Carolina Democrat, calls his proposals "really gutsy" because they "hit some important constituencies right between the eyes."
Ryan says his job is to sound the warning of impending fiscal doom. "What if you knew your congressman knew the timing, scope, nature, and cause of that financial crisis well ahead of time, in time to stop it, but chose not to because it wasn't good politics for him? You'd want to fire that guy."