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GOP Might Want to Rethink the Ryan Boomlet

Rep. Paul Ryan, who has been in Congress for a little more than a dozen years, isn’t exactly an overnight success. But the Wisconsin lawmaker’s new status as unassailable GOP economic guru elevates the seven-term Congressman to a level that may be dangerous both for him and his party.

More than a few conservatives, from intellectual-turned-kingmaker Bill Kristol to writer and talking head Jonah Goldberg, have already urged Ryan to run for the White House next year.

Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin has written that “there is no good reason for Ryan to avoid a presidential run,” while House Majority Leader Eric Cantor  (Va.) recently seemed to invite the Midwesterner into the Republican race.

Ryan is obviously a bright, personable and articulate advocate for his cause, and he’s been preaching the same dogma of lower taxes and less spending since he won election to the House in 1998. His rise in the GOP hierarchy has been steady, dating almost from his first swearing-in.

As CQ’s Politics in America 2004 points out, after about a month on the job Ryan was selected by party leaders to give the GOP response to President Bill Clinton’s weekly radio speech.

After serving a term on the Budget, Oversight and Government Reform, and Financial Services committees, Ryan traded those assignments for a choice slot on the Ways and Means Committee. In 2005 he rejoined the Budget Committee, and two years later he became the ranking member.

Although only 41 years old, Ryan is a Capitol Hill veteran and clearly one of the leading lights of his party. It’s probably fair to say that he has already reached political stardom, but his star could well shine even brighter over the next 20 or 30 years.

Still, elevating Ryan to a point where it’s somehow sacrilegious to criticize him or question some of his arguments — or even to suggest that he must save his party by jumping into the presidential contest — isn’t healthy for Ryan or his party.

Parts of his record, after all, would make some of the people calling for his entry into the race blush.

The Wisconsin lawmaker is a fierce opponent of Obama administration spending and any suggestion of higher taxes, but he also voted for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which conservatives like to say “bailed out the banks,” the “auto bailout,” No Child Left Behind, the 2006 highway bill (with its “Bridge to Nowhere”) and the prescription drug benefit.

“It’s easy to vote against all of the Obama big spending items, but he voted for all the Bush-era big spending items,” said one conservative who wonders what all the hoopla over Ryan is about.

Ryan also has voted repeatedly against repealing Davis-Bacon, with its “prevailing wage” provision that is strongly supported by organized labor and is heresy to most free-market Republicans.

There is no doubt that Ryan’s proposed budget, which included tackling the nation’s Medicare problem, has made him an icon to some conservatives. Those conservatives apparently are looking past his other votes, some of which they undoubtedly would use to demonize a different Member of Congress as a “big government” establishment Republican.

Conservatives’ infatuation with Ryan is dangerous in another way.

Ryan’s budget may reflect Republican values and approaches, but from a political point of view it is a serious burden with no possible near-term payoff.

While the Democrats’ health care reform bill damaged the Democratic brand, frightened swing voters and moderates, energized conservatives and Republicans, and was a significant factor in the Democrats’ disastrous 2010 midterm election losses, at least the Democrats achieved their ultimate goal: establishing a new national health care system.

For many Democrats, the political losses were a small price to pay for finally passing their signature legislative achievement.

But Republicans aren’t going to pass the Ryan budget or fundamentally change Medicare, at least not this year or next.  They don’t control the Senate, and they can’t get the Wisconsin Republican’s plan through it. Instead, Republicans who voted for the Ryan budget have merely taken a hard vote — a very hard vote — that may well result in some of them losing re-election next year.

Ryan surely deserves credit for starting a conversation, but GOP strategists believe that the Medicare debate created by Ryan’s budget is a considerable problem for their party’s candidates over the next year and a half.

“The Ryan budget is an excellent rallying cry for Democratic partisans, much as health care reform was a rallying cry for Republicans last year,” one Republican operative said. “Not only is Democratic enthusiasm up, but a part of the Republican electorate has reduced enthusiasm. Plus, it reduces our numbers among seniors, who are very important to us next year to offset the increase in turnout among 18- to 29-year-olds.”

This doesn’t mean that Ryan’s budget and his proposed changes for Medicare will be fatal to Republican prospects next year. The 2012 presidential contest will create a very different context than the one that existed for this week’s special election in New York.

But at some point, conservatives will realize that Ryan’s proposal is a considerable problem for the party and that a Ryan presidential bid would be an even bigger problem.

When they do, those Republicans and conservatives will be relieved that Paul Ryan, no matter how courageous, articulate, thoughtful and intelligent they think he is, isn’t the GOP nominee for president.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.