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Paul Ryan at fair

U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan found his way back to Wisconsin Sunday for the Walworth County Fair.

JOHN NICHOLS

Paul Ryan has had his eyes on Social Security for a long time.

That’s confirmed by "The Way Forward: Renewing The American Idea," the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee’s 2016 presidential prospect book.

In 2001, when Republicans controlled the presidency and were well positioned on Capitol Hill, the congressman from Janesville met with Vice President Dick Cheney, who was at the peak of his co-presidency powers. Like Cheney in his younger years, Ryan was a former congressional aide who had worked the conservative think-tank circuit before getting elected to the House.

But the vice president was not buying what the man who is now described as “the intellectual leader of the Republican Party” was selling.

Ryan recalls the meeting this way:

“ 'The surplus has given us a huge opportunity,’ I explained. ‘If we dedicate the Social Security surplus to reform, we can shore up the program and end the raid on the trust fund.’ I talked about the opportunity to create a real ownership society, how workers could actually own a piece of the free enterprise system through these reforms. As soon as I finished my pitch, Vice President Cheney said, ‘Yeah, we're not going to do that.’ Then he looked at the person sitting next to me, signaling that he was ready to hear the next idea. His terse reply was the verbal equivalent of someone swatting an annoying mosquito from his face.”

That’s not the only time where Ryan recalls getting the “annoying mosquito” treatment. Throughout the book, he gripes about fellow Republicans who get weak in the knees whenever he starts prattling on about dismantling Social Security as we know it. And, of course, the Republican congressman is relentless in his criticism of President Obama and the Democrats on this issue.

What Ryan never quite recognizes is that Cheney, for all his conservatism, has always been something of a realist when it comes to domestic politics. (He saves his neoconservative flights of fantasy for foreign policy debates.) Like Ryan, Cheney learned his politics in Wisconsin. Though he was raised in Wyoming, the future vice president cut his political teeth as an aide to former Gov. Warren Knowles and then to Wisconsin Congressman William Steiger.

Knowles and Steiger were mainstream Republicans of a sort rarely seen any longer in a Grand Old Party that has abandoned most of its “Party of Lincoln” pretensions. Both had their conservative sides, but they also had what Cheney recognized as “formidable political skills.” Those skills were rooted in an understanding that to govern, one first must get elected — and that, even when election debates are warped by Wall Street money, voters tend to reject candidates who threaten necessary and valued programs.

This is something Ryan struggles with, in part because he's been sheltered until recently from a lot of political realities. The congressman's House elections have come relatively easily, thanks to friendly district lines and (until the recent challenges of Democrat Rob Zerban) relatively lax opposition. But, as the congressman recounts in his new book, the Romney/Ryan ticket lost in 2012 by a 5 million popular vote margin and a 332-206 Electoral College landslide.

“Why did we lose? How did it happen?” Ryan writes. “Why does the Republican Party seem to keep losing ground?”

The point of the congressman's book is to answer those questions. But Ryan never gets there. Instead, he bogs down in pop psychology and strategic talking points — never recognizing that Cheney sorted it all out for him in 2001.

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The American people do not want to reform Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid as part of some austerity scheme to balance budgets on the shoulders of the elderly, people with disabilities and children whose families cannot afford health care. And they reject Ryan’s claim that there is no alternative to cuts.

Budgeting is about priorities. Congress chooses which programs to preserve and whether to cover costs by asking more from those who can afford to pay or by shifting the burden onto those most in need. Voters get this. And they want their leaders to respond to proposals to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid by saying, "Yeah, we're not going to do that."

Cheney understood that: not because he was a liberal, and not because he was uninterested in redistributing the wealth upward. The man who privatized much of the military would undoubtedly love to privatize some domestic programs, if he could see a politically palatable way to pull it off. When the Bush administration tried in its second term to restructure Social Security, its vice president loyally followed the script — sounding some Ryan-like themes — until the initiative collapsed. But entitlement reform was never really the vice president's thing; in his biography he recalled a time when he had "to struggle to stay awake as I slogged through a speech on Medicare reform."

When there is no politically palatable option, Cheney's often been a "not going to do that" guy. As a former secretary of Defense, he entertained a 1996 presidential bid but then abandoned the project when no one seemed interested. Cheney recognized then, as he appeared to again in his 2001 "annoying mosquito" conversation with Ryan, that domestic political calculations require at least some deference to the wisdom of the American people.

Today, that wisdom says the U.S. need not, and must not, slash the social safety net in order to advance reforms that are good for Wall Street but lousy for Main Street. Until Paul Ryan accepts this reality, he’ll remain stuck on the same questions. Indeed, if the Republicans nominate the congressman for president in 2016, and if he runs on the agenda Cheney swatted away 15 years earlier, Ryan will again find himself asking, “Why did we lose? How did it happen? Why does the Republican Party seem to keep losing ground?”

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising

Associate Editor of the Cap Times