How Rep. Paul Ryan became the most courageous man in Washington.
Two products made their debuts in Congress on Tuesday. The first was "The Path to Prosperity," House Republicans' budget resolution for the next fiscal year. The second was the budget's author: Honest Paul.
Honest Paul is the heroic persona of Rep. Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House budget committee. He's like the regular Paul Ryan, except he must pause regularly to accept plaudits for his candor, heroism, and courage. This persona had been in beta-testing for several years, at least since the Weekly Standard profiled him as one of the GOP's rising stars in October 2007 (headline: "The Thinker"). Honest Paul got a good, long trial run in 2010, when Ryan introduced—after plenty of Democratic goading—the budget-cutting "Roadmap for America's Future." The trial run was a success, because for all of the bashing Democrats and liberal-leaning think-tankers did, it didn't stop the Republicans from taking the House.
And so Tuesday belonged to Honest Paul. David Brooks wrote a column praising Ryan for "the most comprehensive and most courageous budget reform proposal any of us have seen in our lifetimes." When Ryan appeared on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," he was interrupted several times to accept more praise. "Let us stop right now and commend him," said host Joe Scarborough, who served with Ryan in the House from 1999 to 2001. "He's in a leadership position," said New York Times financial reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin. "He's come out with a plan, which is more than the Democrats can say."
The plaudits followed Ryan wherever he went. After the MSNBC appearance, at a press conference on Capitol Hill, Paul was flanked by 16 members of his committee and his Republican peer in the Senate, Jeff Sessions. "In the face of all kinds of threats," said Sessions, "you have looked the American people in the eye and released a fact-based budget that will stand up to scrutiny."
After the presser, Ryan jumped on the phone to talk to Glenn Beck and assure Beck's listeners that they could count on him to win the budget wars.
"What will shut these union revolutionaries down?" asked Beck.
"Ultimately, we've got to win elections," said Ryan, diplomatically. "With this budget we're giving the country the debate we deserve to have."
Ryan jumped off the phone and into the American Enterprise Institute to give another speech on the Path. He was introduced by AEI's president, Arthur Brooks, who reminded the crowd that "a budget is a moral document" and that Ryan, making his second AEI appearance since the midterm election, was doing "courageous work."
There are two reasons Ryan is attracting so much praise and so much of the focus today was on Ryan. One: He's courted it. He walked into punches with the 2010 roadmap. Last month he invited TV cameras to watch one of his 15-odd briefings with Republicans, where he sold them on his budget proposal. His pitch to them was hardly different than his pitch to reporters today. He even used the same "tidal wave of debt" illustration, in which entitlement spending becomes a murderous red flood as the baby boomers slip into retirement.
Two: Everybody thinks it's in his or her best interest if Ryan's budget proposal, and Ryan in particular, captivate Washington. It's good for Republicans because they get to shift the Overton Window yet again—they've been doing quite a lot of this—and start a discussion about privatizing Medicare and turning Medicaid payments over to states in the form of block grants. In the space of a couple days, these have gone from the desks of AEI and Heritage researchers and onto, well, "Morning Joe."
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.
Photograph of Paul Ryan by Alex Wong/Getty Images.