Ryan had witnessed three periods when conservatism was ascendant: during the Reagan revolution of the nineteen-eighties; after the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress; and after Bush’s election in 2000. Notably, the federal government’s size and responsibilities grew through all three political epochs. Ryan’s Roadmap soon came to define a fourth conservative surge. Unlike the 1994 Contract with America, which in substance was not nearly as ideological as people thought, and unlike Bush’s compassionate conservatism, which was sold as a rejection of anti-government philosophy, the Roadmap was a comprehensive plan to reduce the welfare state and radically curtail the government’s role in protecting citizens from life’s misfortunes.
Ryan recommended ending Medicare, the government health-insurance program for retirees, and replacing it with a system of direct payments to seniors, who could then buy private insurance. (The change would not affect current beneficiaries or the next decade of new ones.) He proposed ending Medicaid, the health-care program for the poor, and replacing it with a lump sum for states to use as they saw fit. Ryan also called for an end to the special tax break given to employers who provide insurance; instead, that money would pay for twenty-five-hundred-dollar credits for uninsured taxpayers to buy their own plans. As for Social Security, Ryan modestly scaled back his original proposal by reducing the amount invested in private accounts, from one-half to one-third of payroll taxes. Ryan’s Roadmap also promised to cut other government spending, though it didn’t specify how. Likewise, it promised to lower income-tax rates and simplify the tax code, but it didn’t detail which popular deductions—mortgage interest? retirement contributions?—it would eliminate.
Conservative intellectuals at National Review and the Heritage Foundation loved the Roadmap, and Ryan became an icon within the insular world of right-wing pundits. In Congress, things were different. In 2008, with midterm and Presidential elections looming, the Roadmap attracted just eight co-sponsors. Only the most astute observers of G.O.P. internal politics noticed what was happening. In a celebratory column about the Ryan plan in the Washington Post, titled “Fiscal Medicine Man,” Robert Novak, the late conservative writer, predicted, “After what is expected to be another bad G.O.P. defeat in the 2008 congressional elections, Ryan, McCarthy, and Cantor could constitute the party’s new House leadership.”
By early 2009, when I first met Ryan in his office, he was caught between the demands of the Republican leaders, who wanted nothing to do with his Roadmap, and his own belief that the Party had to offer a sweeping alternative vision to Obama’s. Ryan soon had an unlikely ally, in Obama himself. Throughout that year, the Administration struggled to defend its ambitious agenda, in part because there was no Republican alternative for the President to attack. Ryan, deferring to the Party leadership, didn’t aggressively push his plan again. But in late January of 2010, a week after the victory of the Republican Scott Brown in the contest for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts—the first election fuelled by the new Tea Party movement—Ryan offered the Roadmap as an alternative to Obama’s budget.
He presented it not as a dry policy plan, with just numbers and actuarial tables, but as a manifesto that drew on the canon of Western political philosophy as interpreted by conservative intellectuals. The document’s introduction referred to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, Hayek, Friedman, Adam Smith, Max Weber, Émile Durkheim, John Locke, Alexis de Tocqueville, Georges-Eugène Sorel, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Charles Murray, and Niall Ferguson. Ryan himself seemed intent on entering the canon. “Only by taking responsibility for oneself, to the greatest extent possible, can one ever be free,” he wrote, “and only a free person can make responsible choices—between right and wrong, saving and spending, giving or taking.”
Obama saw an opening. Invited to speak before the House Republicans at their retreat in Baltimore, on January 29th, he seemed to extend an olive branch to Ryan. “I think Paul, for example, the head of the Budget Committee, has looked at the budget and has made a serious proposal,” Obama said. “I’ve read it. I can tell you what’s in it. And there’s some ideas in there that I would agree with, but there’s some ideas that we should have a healthy debate about, because I don’t agree with them.” Afterward, Obama made a point of shaking Ryan’s hand and signing an autograph for his seven-year-old daughter, Liza. There was talk in Washington that the two young, wonky Midwesterners might be able to build a working relationship.
Three days later, the White House started a livelier debate with Ryan. In a press briefing, Peter Orszag, the budget director at the time, dismantled Ryan’s plan, point by point. Ryan’s proposal would turn Medicare “into a voucher program, so that individuals are on their own in the health-care market,” he said. Over time, the program wouldn’t keep pace with rising medical costs, so seniors would have to pay thousands of dollars more a year for health care. The Roadmap would revive Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security and “provide large tax benefits to upper-income households . . . while shifting the burden onto middle- and lower-income households. It is a dramatically different approach in which much more risk is loaded onto individuals.” Ryan, who had always had a good relationship with Orszag, later described the briefing as the moment when “the budget director took that olive branch and hit me in the face with it.”