House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan was almost the hero of debt ceiling negotiations. Throughout the government shutdown, Ryan was hailed as a voice of reason by lawmakers and pundits on both sides of the aisle. Or at least, he was portrayed that way. He "quietly" (always quietly) pushed for a reasonable compromise that addressed entitlement reforms but not Obamacare. Then, as the debt ceiling deadline loomed, the GOP decided to ignore him. After this right-wing abandonment, Dave Weigel at Slate tweeted on Wednesday, "Remember when Paul Ryan's WSJ op-ed pointed the way out for the GOP? That was fun." Poor Paul.
As Republicans were being battered by pundits and in public opinion polls over the last two weeks, Ryan was one of the few in his party getting remarkably good media coverage. On October 2, The National Review reported the Wisconsin congressman "has been a quiet presence on Capitol Hill during the shutdown." But don't mistake quietness for irrelevance:
...[T]hat doesn’t mean he’s a silent player. In fact, according to several top House Republicans, it’s Ryan, more than anyone, who’s now shaping the leadership’s internal thinking, especially when it comes to mapping out a strategy for the upcoming debt-limit battle.
Then, on October 8, Ryan wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal op-ed calling for lasting budget reform:
"We need to pay our bills today — and make sure we can pay our bills tomorrow. Let’s negotiate an agreement to make modest reforms to entitlement programs and the tax code. This is our moment to get a down payment on the debt and boost the economy.”
That op-ed sparked a wave of good press. On October 10, The New York Times forecasted Ryan would make his comeback from his failed vice presidential campaign during the shutdown, noting that he was again "at the forefront of the GOP." Rep. Tom Cole told the Times:
"He’s still the intellectual center of Republicans in the House. He’s a guy who commands universal respect in the conference and the trust of leadership, and he has credibility with the other side."
That op-ed sparked a wave of stories about Ryan coming to the rescue. He was leading an effort to pass a six-week extension of the debt ceiling, instead of a "grand bargain" addressing Obamacare, The National Review's Robert Costa reported October 10. "The ease of passage, [a House GOP leadership source] adds, can mostly be credited to Paul Ryan," Costa said. "Ryan’s allies tell me a group of nearly 150 House Republicans had confided to Ryan or the leadership that they were coming around on the debt ceiling; if he’d lead talks on tax reform and entitlement reform, they’d give him their blessing. After weeks of seeing a debt-ceiling standoff as the only 'conservative option,' Ryan had quietly ushered them away from that strategy and toward a longer endgame."
While Ryan was quietly ushering the GOP away from debt-ceiling standoff, he was also quietly working with Dems to establish a budget deal. Calling Ryan the "major name offstage during the national soap opera," Yahoo's Chris Moody reported October 11 that Ryan thought he could break the impasse by "becoming an evangelist for entitlement reforms that Obama himself has proposed." Apparently debt-ceiling talks with Obama started out rough, until Ryan spoke up. The National Review's Jonathan Strong reported October 11:
Republicans familiar with the talks also say the meeting started poorly until House budget chairman Paul Ryan pleaded with Obama, telling him that he was missing a historic opportunity.
"Ryan emerges as possible dealmaker in fiscal crisis," FoxNews.com reported October 12. Ryan "is two for two," CNN's Leigh Ann Caldwell wrote October 14. Ryan "has successfully appeased House Republicans and engaged President Barack Obama in as little as 48 hours. A feat near impossible in these times of extreme partisanship."
But we know how this story ends. Republicans abandoned Ryan's strategy. On Wednesday, Drudge Report announced that the GOP was ignoring Ryan, linking to a Bloomberg article about his ideas being pushed aside. Julian Zelzer, a public affairs professor at Princeton, explained Ryan's mounting failures to Bloomberg:
While he’s long been one of the boldest thinkers in his party, Ryan may need to show results to reap political gains, he said. “He’s been full of ideas over the years, but he hasn’t been successful as a legislator,” Zelizer said. “The conference could be another failure.”
The "moment" Ryan wrote of last week has passed. Ryan and his Democratic counterpart in the Senate, Patty Murray, did resume budget talks on Thursday in the hopes that Congress will be able to come up with a long-term plan for taxes and spending by December 13. After the past three weeks, not many are optimistic about reaching a negotiated compromise.