For State of the Union response, 'Young Gun' Rep. Ryan told: Look like Reagan

Among the advice Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is getting before Tuesday night’s big speech: Stick with broad themes; don’t be negative; and smile and look like Ronald Reagan.

Ryan’s delivery of the Republican response to the president’s State of the Union address could be the moment he breaks onto the national stage, or it could provide enough material for late-night comedians to scuttle the career of a man GOP strategists say could be a senator, vice president or president. 

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The risks are real. Two years ago, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) faded as a conservative darling after a lackluster response speech. News emerged over the weekend that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) declined the opportunity to rebut President Obama, with some pundits calling the decision politically deft.

But the payoff could be worth the risk.

Knowledgeable, charismatic, friendly and good-looking is how colleagues on both sides of the aisle describe Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, who turns 41 this week.

“Ryan’s response will absolutely raise his profile. He’s a rock star inside the Beltway; now he’s going nationwide,” said Mark McKinnon, a former adviser to President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). 

McKinnon could not identify any minuses for Ryan and said the seven-term lawmaker “could easily be presidential material somewhere down in the future.” 

He added that, if Ryan does well, he “could also be on the shortlist for vice president.”



One pollster said Tuesday’s speech, which Ryan will give from the Budget Committee room, could vault the Wisconsin lawmaker into contention for the 2012 presidential race, much the way Obama’s 2004 convention speech sent his career into overdrive. 


“The party needs someone from outside the current top tier of contenders to step up, and Ryan’s speech gives him the platform to start generating buzz along those lines,” said Tom Jensen, a pollster at the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling firm. 

“If he knocks it out of the park, some within the party faithful may want him to explore a run,” said strategist Ron Bonjean, a former adviser to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

One possible liability: Ryan, his party’s fiscal guru, has never held statewide office. 

Ryan could overcome that with enough Internet-generated buzz, said GOP pollster Jon McHenry of Ayres, McHenry and Associates, and because “a strong majority of the country [is] saying we’re heading in the wrong direction.” 

And Ryan’s position as the chairman of a powerful committee could help. McHenry argues that being Budget chairman might provide more of a platform than being a junior senator.

“He’d be an appealing veep choice (assuming he didn’t run for president in his own right), with his budget knowledge and being from Wisconsin,” McHenry said in an e-mail. 

Ryan’s home state is geographically desirable to the Republican Party.

“The Midwest is likely to be the most important area to GOP prospects of winning back the presidency next year — they have to take Ohio and Indiana back, and winning a Wisconsin or Minnesota or Iowa would go a long way as well. Having a nominee who understands the region could go a long way,” Jensen said.

Another option for Ryan: taking on Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), who is up for reelection in 2012, especially after Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) lost his Senate reelection bid last year.

McKinnon and Bonjean see Ryan as a possible Senate candidate, but Jensen argued that running against Kohl could be an uphill battle. 

“Herb Kohl has tended to do better at the ballot box than Russ Feingold did, and Democratic turnout is likely to match its record levels from 2008 after a significant drop last year,” he said. 

To succeed on Tuesday, McKinnon said, Ryan should stick with broad themes. 

“He should not get mired in the details of the roadmap, but provide a clear and compelling conservative economic argument building on — but contrasting with — the president’s proposal,” he said. 

A congressional aide said Monday that Ryan will focus on opposing Obama’s call for more “targeted investments,” which the aide called “stimulus spending” in disguise. 

“Ryan will make clear that in order to boost private-sector job creation we must cut spending,” the aide said. He will also make clear there will be no raising of the debt ceiling without spending cuts and reforms.

One thing Ryan might not want to do: attack the president.

While it could please Tea Party activists, it also could make hammering out a deal on spending cuts more difficult and hurt Ryan’s popularity. 

“He doesn’t want to burn any bridges if he wants to get a deal,” said Bob Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a deficit hawk pressure group. He said that Ryan is the perfect choice for the speech precisely because he comes across as intellectual rather than rabid.

“It would be a mistake to go after Obama. All you have to do is smile and talk about how cutting the deficit is pro-growth, and look like Reagan,” Bixby said. 

McHenry agreed that Ryan should avoid going negative. 

“This is the kind of speech, often without an audience, where throwing out red-meat rhetoric falls flat on TV,” McHenry said. 

McKinnon added that Ryan has to discuss “the importance of toning down the rhetoric and working together” to make his message appealing beyond the base. 

“There is always a risk of a high-profile speech going poorly. But you never get a shot at attaining the highest positions without taking those risks. There are probably 20 or more potential presidential candidates who wish they had this opportunity, risks and all,” McHenry said.