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Paul Ryan's Path To House Speaker Passed Through A Soup Line

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 1/11/2015 Laura Barron-Lopez
ATHENA IMAGE © The Washington Post via Getty Images ATHENA IMAGE

WASHINGTON -- A young Paul Ryan was once a foot soldier for Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), literally planting yard signs for an up-and-coming Republican 25 years ago.

Back then, Ryan was exactly the sort of young believer who many envisioned could become the leader he grew to be, winning a congressional seat from Wisconsin and achieving the top Republican spot on the House Budget Committee, where he crafted such brutally draconian spending plans that Democrats made the "Ryan Budget" an epithet in almost every campaign ad.

One spot showed Ryan shoving a grandma off a cliff .

But those years also made Ryan a hero to the right, the rare policy wonk who was willing to challenge GOP complacency on the budget, and even take credit for Social Security and Medicare reform ideas that Democrats felt sure would doom him.

But they didn't. Republicans won in 2010 and Ryan became an icon.

One veteran Republican, willing to speak candidly about the new House speaker in exchange for anonymity, admitted that he and other established politicians wouldn't go near the early Ryan budget, but now wish they had. Ryan's fiscal blueprint is "the holy grail," the congressman said.

That probably explains why the earnest 45-year-old from Janesville, Wisconsin, won over conservative members of the House Republican conference for the speaker job after they rebelled at California's Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the current majority leader.

What it doesn't explain is why Republicans and Democrats see in Ryan someone who actually has a chance, slim as it may be, to repair the divides in Congress.

Most politicians talk up the virtues and struggles of the middle class. One thing that's a little different about Ryan is his penchant for talking about poverty, a habit he inherited from Jack Kemp, a former congressman from upstate New York and housing secretary under President George H.W. Bush, whom Ryan has called a mentor. That's why, after Ryan's failed vice presidential bid in 2012 -- a campaign that sank in part because of class issues and Mitt Romney's infamous disparagement of the poor -- Ryan's path to the gavel went through a soup line.

During the campaign, the Ryan family ostentatiously donned gleaming aprons and washed dishes during a short photo-op at an Ohio soup kitchen, a stunt that seemed to backfire when the charity operator said some of the pots and pans weren't even dirty.

The next year, Ryan embarked on what many called a "poverty tour," spending at least a dozen weekends immersing himself in the dirty sink of bad neighborhoods, observing as religious nonprofits in various cities hand-washed the souls of poor people who wanted to better themselves.

Bob Woodson, director of a Washington-based nonprofit that advises other charities across the country on how to help the poor, served as Ryan's guide during his yearlong quest for ways to alleviate poverty without throwing more money at it.

"After Paul Ryan lost the presidential race, he went on this journey to deepen his understanding about poverty-fighting," Woodson told HuffPost this week. "And he asked me to take him on these journeys without any press."

Ryan's effort to become a poverty expert led him to some common ground with President Barack Obama. Early in 2014, the president unveiled his "My Brother's Keeper" initiative to help young African-American men. The president lamented the "bad choices" he had made as a youngster, linking them to the problems confronting African-American youths today. Ryan sent the president a letter offering to help. Obama called Ryan to thank him personally. (Ryan's office and the White House declined to share details about the correspondence.)

Ryan remains focused on economic strategies that Democrats say aid the rich. His Ways and Means Committee has passed numerous tax-cut bills that would add hundreds of billions to the deficit.

But he also seems to have acquired enough perspective on how the other half lives to at least include them in his vision.

Indeed, Ryan's speech to Congress on Thursday had several clear warnings to the tea party that he would not just heed their dictates and the ever-more insistent demands that ricochet through the conservative echo chamber.

"We are the body closest to the people," Ryan said. He added: "We don’t echo the people. We represent the people."

"They look at Washington, and all they see is chaos," he said, although he explicitly avoided blaming the GOP base that many more moderate Republicans fault. "Only a fully functioning House can truly represent the people."

Democrats have responded positively, and so far are taking Ryan at his word.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is expected to take over as the top Democrat in the Senate in 2017, praised Ryan for being “straightforward,” “honorable” and “willing to compromise.”

“I think that’s the really positive things about him -- who he is as a person,” Schumer said. “When I look at his budget, I say ‘yikes’ -- you know privatizing Medicare, Social Security, decimating the whole federal government. That’s sort of almost apart from the Paul Ryan you know and you talk to.”

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said it wasn't his intention to "embarrass" Ryan with Republicans, clarifying comments he made earlier in the week about how great it is to work with Ryan.

"The fact is, you know, people around here.... you can become sometimes kind of calloused about things around here," Reid said. "I don't know of anyone else who could have been elected speaker then him. Now I don't know what the future holds. I think he's in for a rocky road but at least as a result of his stepping forward and agreeing to take this job he didn't want, we were able to get this budget thing done."

It’s that collaborative nature, and unique background, that has a majority of House Republicans eager for the change in leadership.

“He’s not the normal political position type -- he’s a thought leader, and an institutionalist,” the veteran GOP member said. “First of all, Paul will be more visionary.”

Boehner, the member said, was “instinctively leery” of broad goals, instead focusing on practical legislation he knew he could shepherd across the finish line.

“Ryan’s style is very opposite -- it’s exactly to do that, here’s the big vision, here’s where we want to go,” the congressman said. Ryan also signals a generational change that will help Republicans dramatically.

Ryan takes over as speaker in a strong position, in part due to the national profile he has cultivated since 2012. But that strength also is due to Boehner’s final two-year budget deal with the White House that lifts the debt ceiling until March 2017 -- leaving little leverage for the conservative wing to use against him.

“I don’t think there’s another time in American history that I can think of when somebody becomes speaker that millions of people, literally, already have voted for and is known in a way most legislative people are never known. It’s one of the reasons why he’s able to at least initially deal with the Freedom Caucus,” said the GOP congressman, referring to the conservative faction within House Republican ranks.

Ryan convinced much of the House Freedom Caucus to rally behind him by pushing a to-do list for his first few months in office that included shaking up the process the House has fallen into in recent years.

Ryan told the hard-line caucus that he would make changes to the House Steering Committee, which assigns House committee membership, by Thanksgiving. He also has promoted broader House process changes, and has expressed willingness to return to regular order, with legislation originating in the committees that have jurisdiction, and then onto the floor.

In a private meeting with House Republicans this week, Ryan alluded to conservative members' sudden and sporadic plots against Boehner, telling the Republican conference, “‘Look, I’m prepared to take arrows to my chest, but not in my back.'"

He’s "the right guy to check some of this Freedom Caucus tactical idiocy,” the member added.  

While the mood on Capitol Hill for Ryan’s swearing in appeared jovial and harmonious, with a number of Freedom Caucus members joining to give him a strong majority vote, those same conservatives will keep a watchful eye on their new leader.

“Whatever the next big issue is, I think it’s very important for Paul, that he show some marginal improvement.” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), a member of the Freedom Caucus. “That whatever comes next, we can look at it as a conference and say this is better than it would have been had Boehner still been here.”

Despite remaining “cautiously optimistic” about Ryan’s ascension, Mulvaney said conservatives are expecting to see “a dramatic change” in the way House Republicans operate.

“We learned that Paul was much more empathetic to our frustrations with the way this place works than we ever realized he would be, and that was very encouraging to us,” Mulvaney said. “He learned, I think, that our frustrations were justified. It wasn’t division for the sake of division -- it was a logical response to mistreatment by the prior leadership.”

Slightly discouraged by the budget deal Boehner wrapped up on his way out, Mulvaney wondered what conservatives could use as a litmus tests for Ryan. He had at least one in mind.

When the House works on a larger bill to fund the nation’s highways, roads and bridges over the next month, Mulvaney said his caucus will be looking to see if the process is better, if the House gets involved early, and if Ryan allows the Senate to dictate what the House does. 

Ryan will have to pass a long-term extension of the Highway Trust Fund by Nov. 20, and push through an omnibus spending bill in December.

And if the House Freedom Caucus isn’t testing him enough, outside tea party groups like FreedomWorks will.

“Paul Ryan’s record has blemishes, the most recent of which was his vote in favor of the Obama-Boehner budget,” said FreedomWorks CEO Adam Brandon. “But the race for speaker wasn’t about personalities; it was about process. Ryan knows what he needs to do gain the trust of House conservatives to avoid Boehner’s fate.”

Conservative Heritage Action, too, ripped into the budget deal that Ryan supported this week, and challenged the new speaker to embrace a “bold conservative policy agenda.”

At the end of the day, Ryan will be expected to heal the turmoil among House Republicans, and enter into a leadership that includes Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) -- with whom he has worked with very little.

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