But it’s happening because neither Ryan nor the White House made any steps to work out their differences. At key moments of possible compromise—on the Simpson-Bowles commission, during the debt-limit crisis—he’s kicked over the table. Ryan voted against the final Simpson-Bowles recommendation because it “didn’t address health care” and raised taxes. In the summer of 2011, when Boehner kept bringing versions of a “grand bargain” back to the Hill, Ryan argued against passing anything that raised taxes. He fretted that a deal would smooth Barack Obama’s path to re-election.
During that campaign, Obama was able to exploit Ryan’s calcified positions, hitting him for the specifics of his Medicare reform and the vagueness of his cuts. Ryan’s 2012 and 2013 budgets proposed $2.2 trillion in discretionary spending cuts, but only third-party think-tank researchers bothered to calculate what would get lopped off. Ryan would show audiences a series of slides about the national debt to emphasize the need for cuts. There were no slides about his actual budget.
What’s changed since Obama won? Nothing, really. Ryan has given a few on-the-record interviews, mostly to local media. His longest stint in front of the camera was a speech at the Jack Kemp Foundation’s leadership awards, where the main attraction was Sen. Marco Rubio. “You know any good diners in New Hampshire or Iowa?” asked Ryan. “I’m sure the press won’t read much into that.”
Ryan’s speech described the 2012 election as a “close” and temporary loss. “We have a compassionate vision based on ideas that work,” he said, “but sometimes we don’t do a good job of laying out that vision.” There are two schools of Republican thought on the election: one that believes that the party needs to shift on some issues and one that believes that all that is needed is better messaging. Ryan was walking through door No. 2. He wanted Republicans to apply “the welfare-reform mindset with equal vigor across the spectrum of anti-poverty programs.” But he said less about how than he’d offered in his campaign speeches.
And that, still, was more than he needed to do. As long as Republicans are in a horrific negotiating position, Ryan’s going to be less visible. He’ll be out front again in four-odd months, when he proposes his next budget. There’s just no real negotiation happening between the congressman who would propose massive reforms and the president who would sign them. By ignoring him now, the White House will allow him to say that the serious work of tax and entitlement reform started with House Republicans.
Until then, Ryan can lend Republicans his brand. On Thursday, Boehner held a mostly useless update on fiscal-cliff talks that featured one fresh hook. He had a new chart, provided by Ryan, labeled “Spending Is the Problem,” with the slogan helpfully hashtagged for maximum tweetage. The chart contrasted projected revenue from higher taxes with the projected growth of the federal budget. “It's this issue—spending!” said Boehner, waving his arm at the chart. “Go back to polling—most people would agree that spending is a much bigger problem than raising taxes.”
The chart and its designer weren’t particularly relevant to the matter at hand. They were a preview of what, and who, would matter again next year.