JANESVILLE, Wis. — A look of mild panic crosses his face as Charlie Ryan, 11 years old and trying out his first archery bow for hunting, struggles to follow his father's instructions.
"Put the kisser in the corner of your mouth," House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan begins, arms wrapped around his son and referring to a small, plastic ball that helps position the bow for beginners. "Put your nose on the string and close your left eye. Then the right eye looks through the peep. See the pins?"
The third time around — kisser in mouth, nose on string, one eye closed, look through the peep — Charlie finally spies the tiny colored pins used for targeting. It's all about focus, a familiar trait for Ryan, the GOP's vice presidential nominee in 2012 and a possible presidential contender in 2016.
He gained focus when he had to grow up fast, at age 16, after he found his father's body, dead from a heart attack. In his new book, The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea, published Tuesday by Twelve, Ryan reveals for the first time that his father was an alcoholic, entering rehab at one point but failing to stay sober. His father's addiction and his death at age 55 taught Ryan something about the hardships families can face, he says, and helped make him a man in a hurry.
"I had never talked about my dad's battle with alcohol before ... and that was hard to do," he said in an interview at a park in his hometown. He discussed it first with his mother and siblings. Why disclose it? "The reason is that people have problems; families have difficult experiences. But you can regenerate from those things. ... It's sort of a parallel. You can have a comeback in your own family, in your own life, and the country can have a comeback from its own problems."
Now Ryan is on a crusade to shape the direction of the GOP, and the country, with conservative policy prescriptions to recast federal poverty programs, revamp Medicare and Medicaid, overhaul the tax code and more.
Some potential 2016 rivals — Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Texas Gov. Rick Perry among them — have all but launched presidential campaigns. Ryan instead seems squarely focused on laying the groundwork to pursue major legislation when he's slated to take over the House Ways and Means Committee in January.
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That sounds a lot like a detour from the road to the White House, at least for now. While it's traditionally referred to as the powerful Ways and Means Committee, the panel hasn't exactly proved to be a national springboard. The last chairman to win the presidency was William McKinley, in 1896, and he had served as governor of Ohio in between. (No House Budget chairman, Ryan's current post, has ever won the White House.)
"I am just not one of those people who want to spend two years flying around the country trying for another job when I feel like I have an important one to do right now," Ryan says. "I'm really a policy person focused on ideas and policies and outcomes." The book jacket touts him as "the intellectual leader of the Republican Party."
After four years in which congressional gridlock is the rule and action the exception, Ryan's ambitions are big. How hard could it be? Kisser in mouth, nose on string, close one eye, look through the peep. Find the pins.
'MAKE SOME DECISIONS'
Getting things done could get easier if Republicans gain control of the Senate as well as the House in the November elections. If that happens — and it's now a better-than-even bet — approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline and other GOP-backed bills that have been bottled up in the Senate are likely to pass Congress and be sent to President Obama for his signature or veto. "Put them on the president's desk and get him to make some decisions instead of trying to do the phone-and-the-pen routine," Ryan says.
In the past, Ryan has cut deals with Democrats. Last December, he and Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington state, reached a two-year budget accord, a modest compromise that was hailed as a breakthrough because the species has become so rare.
But he is withering toward the president — a breach he dates to a speech Obama gave in April 2011 outlining his budget plan. Ryan was sitting in a front-row seat reserved for him for an address he thought would embrace a bipartisan commission's deficit-reduction plan and move toward compromise. Instead, Obama blasted the GOP budget Ryan had drafted as imperiling the most vulnerable. He called for cuts in defense spending and higher taxes for the affluent.
"That was the moment where I realized, oh, wow, he really is a committed ideologue," Ryan says. "He isn't going to triangulate like Bill Clinton did. He isn't going to move to the middle." The prominent seat he had been given, with no heads-up on what was to follow, seemed designed to embarrass. He says Erskine Bowles, the commission's Democratic co-chairman, called him afterward to apologize, saying, "That was reprehensible behavior and I'm ashamed of it as a Democrat."
White House officials blame unyielding Republicans, especially Tea Party supporters, for undermining efforts by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Obama to reach a grand bargain on the budget, not to mention a compromise on immigration and almost anything else.
"I really don't see it that way," Ryan says, largely giving his party a pass on responsibility for Washington's dysfunction and defending the motives of Cruz, whose tactics led the way to a government shutdown last October. The Texas firebrand has influence in the House because some legislators are "horrified at the direction of America ... and they want to do everything they can to stop it," he says.
But he also outlines a different approach. "My argument is we should criticize and we should oppose, but that's not near enough. We have to say who we are, what we believe in, how we would do things differently and what do our reforms look like."
Over the next two years, it's possible a Republican-controlled Congress could reach agreements with Obama on some trade accords and a "medium-sized" budget deal, Ryan says, but action on more far-reaching proposals isn't likely until after the next presidential election. Last month, he released a 73-page anti-poverty plan in an effort, he says, to start a conversation. It calls for combining 11 federal programs into "Opportunity Grants" that would be funneled to states.
While there presumably will be a fierce debate over his proposal, the fact that he is calling for attention to the issue of poverty stands in stark contrast to Mitt Romney's dismissal during the 2012 campaign of "the 47% who are dependent on government, who believe that they are victims." Ryan says his running mate took responsibility for a comment that he acknowledged was a mistake.
"It's a positive step to have Republicans engaging in a conversation about the working poor, those trying to get into the working class," White House counselor Dan Pfeiffer said at a recent breakfast with reporters hosted by The Christian Science Monitor. He singled out some "potential areas for compromise," including Ryan's proposed expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit.
But Pfeiffer cautioned: "The challenge here is the Ryan proposals are still ... in the context of a budget that is balanced on the backs of the poor and those who need assistance."
The GOP budget calls for slashing many of the programs that would be combined into "Opportunity Grants." The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and other liberal critics object in particular to the idea of making food stamps a discretionary program rather than an entitlement, available to anyone who qualifies.
"He's certainly got the polish and on a personal level he's a very nice fellow," says Larry Zamba, 57, a local political activist who stops Ryan to chat before a ceremony marking the two-year anniversary of a mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis. "But he believes in the very right-wing, conservative, trickle-down economics theory, and the last 30 or 40 years shows us it doesn't work."
In November, Zamba plans to vote for "the other guy," Democrat Rob Zerban, the challenger Ryan trounced by 12 percentage points in 2012.
When Ryan and his wife, Janna, told children Liza, Charlie and Sam that Romney had chosen their father to be his running mate in 2012, Charlie burst into tears over the consequences if they won.
"Wait a second," he protested. "Dad, does this mean we have to leave Janesville?"
He is, apparently, his father's son. Ryan lives around the corner from the neat clapboard house in which he grew up. American flags hang from many of the homes and children ride bikes along tree-lined streets. "Literally, it's the same childhood I had, except for the nuns," he says.
That said, things weren't easy for him as a teenager after his father died, his mother went back to school and his grandmother moved in as she began showing signs of dementia. His father had stayed sober for 20 years but went off the wagon when Ryan was 13, turning to Canadian Club to numb fears about his failing health and eyesight. "Before I lost him to a heart attack, whiskey had washed away some of the best parts of the man I knew," he writes.
At that point, he says, "I basically decided I needed to step up, grow up and be there for my mom and grandma." He says it "made me get serious about myself and about how I wanted to lead my life."
Tobin Ryan, five years older and away at college by then, says until he read his brother's new book he hadn't fully realized how difficult those years had been. "I'm a little sorrowful that I wasn't perhaps a better bigger brother back in those tough years for Paul," he says. Tobin, who works in private equity and is perhaps his brother's closest confidant, also has moved his family back to Janesville and the neighborhood where they grew up.
At 44, Paul Ryan has had a fast rise. He was elected to Congress when he was 28 years old, after receiving a bachelor's degree in economics from Miami University in Ohio and what he calls "graduate school" at Empower America. The advocacy group was led by Jack Kemp, who became his mentor. The ebullient former Buffalo Bills quarterback, congressman, Cabinet member and vice-presidential nominee pushed supply-side economics and Republican outreach to African Americans and Hispanics.
But Ryan is more influential now than Kemp was. The Buffalo congressman never served as a committee chairman — Democrats were in control — and Ryan is one of only a handful of Republicans who has strong ties to both the party establishment and the Tea Party conservatives. "We lost our way in the mid-2000s with earmarks and big government," he says. "What the Tea Party did was, it helped us regenerate ourselves."
At the moment, though, his focus is on Charlie, as Russ Hookstead, who owns the Hunt 'n' Gear store in Janesville with his wife, adjusts the youth bow, a Christmas gift, to fit Charlie's reach. "Paul was a year behind me at Craig," the local high school, wife Carrie Hookstead recalls from the cash register. "I remember him being an intelligent guy."
Billie Hookstead, 78, an aunt who helps out at the store part time, is a supporter. "He understands the fact that if we as a middle class don't thrive, capitalism will die," she says.
That said, she wants him to wait before he runs for president. "I know what I was like when I was 40 and I know what I was like at 50 and I know what I was like at 60," she says, "and you get better."
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