WASHINGTON -- Just off the floor of the House of Representatives is an ornate room known as the Speaker's Lobby. Restricted to most staffers and all lobbyists, video recording is banned and audio recording is frowned upon, creating an informal atmosphere where credentialed reporters and members of Congress gossip and trade news.
If the member you're looking for isn't wandering the lobby, House staff will deliver a small card to them on the floor, listing your name and news organization. It's up to the member whether he wants to push through the swivel doors and engage.
In early 2009, when I began reporting for The Huffington Post, the first card I put in was addressed to Ryan. He bounded into the Speaker's Lobby, saying he was looking forward to mixing it up ideologically. Paul Ryan does not lack for confidence in his intellectual capacity, or in his ability to defend the type of political position most Republicans prefer to brush past. "The New York Times editorial board agrees, people take Ryan seriously, because he talks about things other politicians only make 30 second commercials about," said one former senior House aide.
Ryan's appreciation for his own brain power may only be matched in Washington by the current White House occupant's for his own. And President Barack Obama enjoys engaging Ryan just as much. The president lifted Ryan onto the national stage in the midst of the health care reform debate, repeatedly referencing him while he debated the House GOP conference, on live TV, at their annual retreat. While both Ryan and Obama thrive on the thrust and parry of political debate with rivals, Mitt Romney would much rather hold private discussions and is deeply suspicious of the media.
Ryan is often credited by the establishment in Washington with the courage to turn talking points into concrete legislation, as he did with his controversial budget that ends Medicare as a guaranteed benefit and cuts Social Security benefits, stomping squarely on the third rail.
But Obama, of course, has also been willing to put campaign promises down on paper. Love, hate or feel indifferent about the Affordable Care Act, it offers a specific and detailed approach to the health care crisis. Putting Ryan on the Republican ticket sets up a campaign that threatens to be about real issues, sharpening the contradictions between the two parties.
That's just how Ryan likes it. People who know him say he is genuinely committed to making long-lasting and dramatic changes to entitlement programs, and he embraces combat with liberals not just for the intellectual thrill of it, but because he's on the hunt for converts. "He doesn't want to do this with 51 percent," said one GOP aide of Ryan's longterm goals.
Ryan was surprised to find himself enjoying the national attention that came with his higher profile and his flirtation with a 2012 presidential bid. Once he decided not to run, he began looking for other ways to continue the national debate over spending and the budget. His role as vice presidential candidate gives him the platform to carry the conversation forward.
The contrast with Mitt Romney couldn't be greater. Ryan has spent essentially his entire professional life as either a congressional intern, a political aide or a member of Congress. “I learned economics working for Jack Kemp,” he once said. Romney, meanwhile, made his first run for public office at age 46 -- four years older than Ryan is today -- and began by sitting down with a consultant to figure out where he stood on major political questions, according to the book The Real Romney, by two Boston Globe reporters.
Yet despite the differences when it comes to political conviction, Romney and Ryan get along well together. A person close to the situation said that Romney chose Ryan over the objections of his senior staff. Romney is attracted to Ryan's famously wonkish, analytical approach to policy, which mirrors his own approach in the boardroom. Ryan's ability to ingratiate himself with Romney wouldn't surprise high-school classmates, who voted him "biggest brown noser." And Ryan and Romney also share a background in family wealth, and the comfort of never having to worry about money. Ryan's great-grandfather founded Ryan Incorporated Central, a construction firm that has gone on to enjoy tremendous success and is still owned by the Ryan family.