Dubbed a future leader, Paul Ryan already shapes the Washington debate.

By Stephen F. Hayes

Shortly after 12:30 p.m. on Jan. 27, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan walked into a private room at Charlie Palmer’s steakhouse—an upscale restaurant one block from the Capitol in Washington, D.C.

It was exactly one week since Barack Obama had been inaugurated, and some of the country’s most influential political journalists had turned out to hear Ryan. The political director for ABC News, CNN’s vice president for Washington programming, a White House correspondent for The New York Times, the executive producer for NBC’s “Meet the Press”—about a dozen in all.  

Ryan walked in wearing headphones. His young press staffer, Conor Sweeney, a graduate of Marquette University, followed behind. When a reporter asked why Ryan was listening to his iPod, the congressman explained that he listened to music between meetings because it helps him relax. 

The obvious question followed. What are you listening to?  

“Led Zeppelin,” Ryan replied with a smile. Everyone in the room laughed. Ryan didn’t eat much, preferring to spend his limited time talking policy. The session was on background—meaning reporters couldn’t quote him by name.

Ryan nonetheless spent nearly an hour talking, at times in mind-numbing detail, about the likely consequences of the Obama administration’s fiscal policy and what Republicans would do differently. His critiques were policy-focused, as they always are, and smart.

At just 38, Paul Ryan is already considered a guiding voice of conservatives in Washington. In media profiles and speech introductions, Ryan is often described as a next-generation leader of the Republican Party. That’s only half right. Ryan will almost certainly shape the GOP in the years to come. But, as the gathering at Charlie Palmer’s suggests, Ryan is an influential voice in Washington right now.

He is the highest-ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee and a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee. Between those two committees, Ryan has the ability to affect economic policy—from the federal budget and entitlements to government spending and taxes—in an almost unparalleled way.

Eric Cantor, whose role as House Minority Whip makes him the second-highest-ranking Republican, calls Ryan “the intellectual heavyweight within our conference.” He adds: “No one understands the budget and the nuances of America’s fiscal outlook like him. He commands the total respect of his colleagues because he does his homework.”

 Ryan comes by this intellectualism naturally. A native of Janesville, Ryan studied economics and political science at Miami University in Ohio. Upon arriving in Washington, he worked as policy director for Empower America, a think tank founded by Bill Bennett and the late Jack Kemp to advance their brand of optimistic conservatism. Perhaps more than any other Republican, he is the avatar of that hopeful philosophy of limited government.

This was in evidence on May 10, when Ryan addressed graduates at his alma mater. He spoke about the new American conformity, which, he argued, looks a lot like the old American conformity. Here’s what he said:

  “In Washington, at the center of the American political order, there is nothing more ‘correct,’ nothing more necessary than to conform to the pessimistic view that America has lost its primacy in the world and we are going to have to live with decline at home and abroad,” he said. “We are supposed to adjust to shrunken dreams and manage the stagnation by controlling more and more sectors of what was once a free society.

 “‘Free society turned out to be a failure—it allowed unlimited greed to bring our economy down. Now government—moderate, selfless, unambitious government—must step in to direct producers, investors, homebuyers, and entrepreneurs to drive greed out of the 21st century. Government also has to take the lead in creating jobs.

 “If you ask how government can create a job without paying for it by taking the money from jobs and workers in the private sector, the new conformists will label you ‘uncompassionate’ or worse. The best we can hope for, they say, is to survive. My friends, America isn’t a nation of survivors. America is a nation of dreamers, innovators—we are a nation of winners.”

Ryan is, at heart, a policy wonk. He’s good-looking and personable, and he can work a room like an old political pro. But he seems to enjoy the drudgery of budget work or retooling targeted tax credits like he’s a fiscal policy analyst working in the basement of the Congressional Budget Office.

A year before the mainstream media labeled Republicans “The Party of No,” Ryan published an 86-page “Roadmap for America,” a detailed plan to put the country on the road to financial stability. Ryan offered three objectives: achieve health and retirement security, lift the debt burden, and promote economic growth.

The pages of the plan are filled with dozens of charts and graphs that demonstrate America’s fiscal crisis and Ryan’s proposals to address it.

The fact that Ryan is articulate and knowledgeable helps explain why he spends much of his time these days on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” or on Fox News discussing Republicans’ opposition to Barack Obama’s rapid and dramatic expansion of the federal government’s role in the U.S. economy.

Ryan does sometimes slip into “wonk-speak”—the kind of Budget Committee jargon that is meaningless to most Americans—but virtually everyone agrees that he is one of the best public faces for conservatives in Congress.

 “He’s smart, eloquent, well-informed and committed to the conservative principles that made this country great,” says Liz Cheney, daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney and another next-generation conservative leader.

There is little disagreement among inside-the-Beltway conservatives that Ryan will have a prominent role in the future of the Republican Party. The only question is whether he’ll be director of the Office of Management and Budget in a future Republican administration—or whether he’ll be on the ticket someday himself.

Stephen F. Hayes, a Wauwatosa native, is a senior writer for the Weekly Standard. His books include Cheney: The Untold Story of America’s Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President (HarperCollins) and The Connection: How al Qaeda’s Collaboration with Saddam Hussein Has Endangered America (HarperCollins).