Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Talking at length about a Republican campaign that has been feverishly second-guessed, Paul Ryan professed all will be well in the end.
“We’re going to beat him,” he said of President Barack Obama. “But it’s never easy to beat an incumbent, especially one who’s such a gifted politician.”
In an exclusive interview with the Journal Sentinel as he flew home to Janesville from Florida on Saturday night, Ryan answered questions about the state of the race, about conservative frustrations with the Romney campaign and about the political debate that exploded last week over “makers and takers” in American society:
Ryan said people who rely on government aid don’t do so “by choice” – as compared with Romney’s recently reported remarks at a 2012 fundraiser, where he characterized 47% of Americans as dependent on government, having a “victim” mind-set, and feeling entitled to food, health care and housing.
Ryan, who has called those comments “inarticulate,” said Obama’s policies have led to “economic stagnation” and “more able-bodied people becoming dependent upon government.” But he said those people are becoming dependent “because they have no alternatives . . . they’re not there by choice.”
He rejected the notion that there’s a partisan line between Americans who pay taxes and Americans who get government help (as Romney’s remarks suggested). Asked if “the makers are Republicans and the takers are Democrats,” Ryan said, “Oh, gosh no, absolutely not.” While Ryan himself has warned about “takers” outnumbering “makers,” he said in the interview that “growth is the secret” to preventing that from happening.
He disputed criticism from conservative commentators that the Romney campaign has been vague and timid. “A, we still have a ways to go. We still have a lot left that we’re planning on doing,” he said. “B, I think that’s just what conservatives do by nature. I think that’s just the nature of conservative punditry is to do that – to kind of complain – about any imperfection they might see.”
Ryan said that charge against Romney was contradicted by “his very selection of me as his running mate, the guy with all the specifics, who’s put out all these solutions on the table. It shows you very clearly Mitt Romney’s not afraid of making big decisions, making tough decisions, putting specifics out there.”
He discounted the complaints of some of his own supporters, including Gov. Scott Walker, who say Romney hasn’t used Ryan the way they hoped – to inject the campaign with more ideological vision, passion and substance. Ryan said his own approach to campaigning is evolving as he feels his way through his first national election.
“Look, Scott’s my friend. He’s just an advocate. He’s just always going to be going to bat for me like that,” said Ryan, who said he did not feel under wraps. “Never once has the (Romney) campaign asked me to stop something or do something differently or not do anything.”
Ryan said he thinks he will add a few points to the GOP ticket in Wisconsin.
“I’m the hometown guy. . . . People know me. I think people root for their home team,” said the Janesville congressman and House budget chair, who said, “President Obama can’t take (Wisconsin) for granted any more.”
While the latest Wisconsin polls have shown Obama opening a lead after the race had tightened in August, Ryan pointed to the GOP’s victories in the 2010 midterms and 2012 recall fight. Republicans “are so much better . . . than we used to be” at mobilizing their supporters, Ryan said.
“I look at our recalls as a great example of how to win a race. Be really clear about who you are, what you believe, what you plan on doing, and go do it,” he said.
Ryan granted the interview in a moment of anxiety for many Republicans, amid perceived missteps by Romney, and with polls giving Obama the edge in key battlegrounds. It was a rare extended sit-down with a reporter aboard his campaign plane, where Ryan sat between his mother, Betty, and his brother, Tobin, on his way to a Sunday at home with his wife and three children.
The candidate seemed to concede some level of success by Democrats in shaping perceptions of the race – and of Romney – but argued that in the end, certain fundamentals will reassert themselves.
“This is an incumbent with enormous political skills,” Ryan said. “His problem is, his Achilles heel, is his record, his broken promises. That’s going to catch up with him.”
Asked about the perception that the electoral math is daunting for Republicans – that Romney has to win a tough combination of contested states where he’s now trailing in the polls – Ryan said:
“I’ll leave the Electoral College stuff up to people like you, and the political people. I won’t get into that. But the Obama campaign’s got a lot of money and they’re basically trying to trash us. Because that’s the only kind of campaign they can win is tear the other guy down. Can’t run on his record, so he’s got to run divide and distort and distract. And in any given week, they’ll be effective at distracting the country, but in the closing arguments of this, when people bring their minds to bear, do they want four more years of this same stuff? Especially when we’re offering specific alternatives on how to fix these problems, and (there is) just his utter failure of leadership. I think we’re going to be fine.”
In a Wisconsin poll by Quinnipiac, The New York Times and CBS News released last week, 55% of likely voters said they thought Romney’s policies favored the rich rather than the middle class or poor. Asked about that perception, Ryan cited the Obama campaign ads, which have hit that theme hard. (Obama’s ads did not begin airing in Wisconsin until this month, as both campaigns launched their TV ads much later here than in other battlegrounds).
“I think it’s a function of (the fact that) Obama’s ads have been pounding on that point, and we have to be clear about explaining what pro-growth policies mean,” Ryan said.
Obama renewed that attack when he appeared Saturday in Milwaukee, saying, “My opponent, he believes in top-down economics, thinks that if you spend another $5 trillion on a tax cut skewed towards the wealthy that prosperity will rain down on everybody else. . . . Now, the problem, of course, is we just tried this. We tried it during the last decade. It didn’t work then. Top-down economics never works.”
Ryan said the GOP counter to that is that “redistributing the wealth doesn’t work to grow the economy. Fighting over slices of a shrinking pie doesn’t work. Growing the pie does work.”
Shortly before getting on the plane to Janesville on Saturday, Ryan held a town-hall meeting in Orlando, Fla., in a small college arena before a packed and lively crowd.
It was his third town-hall-style event in recent weeks. Ryan added a new wrinkle to this one, a Power Point with grim charts showing a projected explosion of federal spending and debt. The Q-and-A and the Power Point gave the event the feel of one of Ryan’s congressional listening sessions in Wisconsin.
“Maybe some people think that’s a little wonky and little geeky and a little too much information, but I don’t think so,” he said. “I think people appreciate it.”
Ryan said his own style of campaigning is evolving – not in response to critics but as he discovers what works for him.
“I’m feeling my own way because it’s my first national campaign to be in the middle of. And so I’m basically asserting my own preferences now, and I like it,” said Ryan, who said he’s stepping up his use of the town hall format with questions from voters.
“I’m learning how to do this. I’m learning how a national campaign works. So I spent a good bit of time doing rallies and events, and I got to realizing, that you know what, I want to do more town hall meetings. That’s been my bread and butter in Congress. I really like that. It’s more interactive. You get to actually communicate directly with people,” he said.
He said he also decided he wanted to do more “big speeches,” like his appearances at the conservative Values Voters Summit in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 14 and this past Thursday at the AARP, the huge advocacy group for older Americans.
“We want to make this a big choice at the end of the day,” he said.
Ryan drew boos at the AARP event when he talked about repealing the president’s health care plan, but said in the interview:
“You want to go in (and) just answer questions. You want to go in to what may be a hostile environment, because we’re not afraid to take our message to anybody, we’re not afraid to show our ideas to anybody. We’re proud of our ideas.”
Ryan also spoke about Social Security to AARP. Seven years ago, in a talk to a group of Ayn Rand devotees known as the Atlas Society, Ryan had characterized Social Security as a “collectivist program” and a “welfare transfer” system, remarks that have gotten renewed attention in the current campaign.
Asked about those words Saturday, Ryan said that did not represent his thinking about the retirement program.
“I don’t think of it like that,” he said, saying his concern about Social Security is that younger workers today will get a “negative” rate of return for their retirement on the money they pay into payroll taxes.
Ryan described the 2012 presidential contest as fluid and argued that assumptions about a Democratic edge were premature.
“You’ll see an up and a down, this way and that way,” he said. “We’ve still got a fair ways to go in a political sense. As people see in the debates a contrast, as they see the closing arguments in this campaign, they’ll know they have a very easy and clear choice to make.”
He characterized his side as drawing clear contrasts and offering specific alternatives to a failed presidency, and characterized the other side as running on “platitudes,” creating distractions, trying to “muddle” the debate and disqualify the opposition.
“They’re trying to nullify the notion that there’s an alternative path for the country to that which they’ve put us on. And they’re trying to echo this theme that there’s no ‘there’ there, there’s no alternative, there’s no substance, and they’re trying to get people to echo that,” Ryan said.
Asked about his debate with Vice President Joe Biden on Oct. 11, Ryan said he spends a lot of time reading and preparing. Then in a bit of ritual expectation-setting, he called Biden “arguably the most experienced debater in politics today. He’s run for president twice. He’s vice president, so, he’s very experienced.”
Asked what has surprised him about running for vice president, Ryan said:
“I live in a bubble. I knew there’d be a security thing. It’s more than I expected. I haven’t driven a car in I think six weeks. . . . It’s the bubble. The security people are wonderful human beings but there’s a closeness that is something I’ve never experienced before.”