He was enthusiastic, earnest, courteous and well-informed. Rep. Paul Ryan, in other words, certainly knew how to play the role of a sleeves-rolled-up, problem-solving deficit hawk as a member of the high-profile Simpson-Bowles budget commission.
In the end, however, that was not the role Ryan chose to play -- he was more of a loyal GOP partisan who wasn't willing to step out on his own.
After beginning as an energetic participant on the Simpson-Bowles commission, he finished up as an energetic participant in the ideological stalemate that doomed its work to failure.
Some Democrats now maintain that the higher the stakes -- and the closer Simpson-Bowles got to actually forging a bipartisan solution -- the less flexible and more partisan Ryan became.
In terms of meaningful consequences, it is easy to sum up the work of the 18-member Simpson-Bowles group, established by President Barack Obama through an executive order and formally known as the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform: Next to nil.
In a strange turnabout, however, the commission has lived larger in mythology after its demise than it ever did while doing its work. Partisans and commentators on all sides--and in particular centrists and business leaders--hail the efforts of co-chairman Alan Simpson, a Republican, and Erskine Bowles, a Democrat, as exactly what Washington needs more of.
And they cite the inability of its recommendations--a mix of spending cuts and increased revenue proposals--to gain momentum as deplorable evidence that Obama and GOP leaders won't put the national interest in solving the budget crisis over their own narrow partisan concerns.
Now the saintly, do-good aura that surrounds Simpson-Bowles presents an awkward challenge for Mitt Romney and his running mate. Romney is pitching Ryan as a problem solver who wants to use his command of the budget to forge bipartisan deals to solve the nation's fiscal crisis.
But in reality, Ryan, according to the recollection of some commission members and staffers, was a key part of the dynamic that undermined the commission and allowed the triumph of partisan and ideological loyalties over a budget deal.
Under its charter, the commission needed a supermajority of 14 members in order to give its formal endorsement to any recommendations. Ryan joined six other members--the dissenters came from both parties--in voting against the final proposal, with 11 members in favor.
Skeptics say this record--combined with Ryan's emphatically ideological approach as chairman of the House Budget Committee--undermines Romney's claim in an interview on this weekend's "60 Minutes" broadcast that Ryan "is a man who's dedicated the last 14 years working in Washington in ways that are not highly partisan or political but are instead focused on the right course for America."
"There is not a flexibility in Paul Ryan," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who served on the commission with Ryan."He saw the problem as spending, period, end of story. It wasn't a matter of this is a revenue proposal that I could support."
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) told CNBC that Ryan's rigidity is "probably the thing that concerns me most about Paul."
Another Democrat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, joked that Ryan was "willing to work across party lines on his ideas."
Even former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who was also on the panel, said Ryan didn't shift his positions to get a deal.
"He wants to get things done but he's not going to give up his philosophical base to accomplish it," he said. "But you don't have to if you know what you're doing and you're effective."
To be fair, the liberals on the commission -- including Schakowsky -- were rigid in their beliefs as well and were unwilling to target entitlements and big cuts to social spending.
Ryan backers says there is some important context for Ryan's actions on the commission. The commission's final report came less than one month after Republicans won control of the House in the 2010 election, a moment when Obama was back on his heels and the GOP was riding high -- and with little incentive to make a deal.
In addition, Ryan and the other two Republicans were on the commission because they were put there by soon-to-be House Speaker John Boehner. Republican insiders say the notion the Ryan could freelance on some bold move to cut a deal with the Democrats just doesn't take into account that it was truly Boehner and House leadership setting the tone for the negotiations.
Still, other panel members said they sensed Ryan's position hardening as work continued through 2010. Andy Stern, a Democratic panel member and former head of the Service Employees International Union, said that Ryan began the year as a skeptic thanks to his years in the minority and disillusionment with the Bush administration's spending.
But Ryan was still open -- at least in the beginning -- to compromise on issues like revenue, said Stern, who also voted against final Simpson-Bowles recommendations because he thought they were too conservative.
"He knew revenue was going to be part of the mix," Stern told POLITICO. "He thought the best way to do that was through changes in the tax system. He didn't even draw a line there."
After Republicans won control of the House that November -- in no small part because of the "roadmap" that Ryan authored in 2008 -- he started taking harder positions, Stern said. Ryan would soon be taking control of the House Budget Committee.
The prospect of assuming a leadership position changed Ryan's tone, Stern added.
"There was a marked change after the election," Stern said. Ryan "went from sounding open and flexible, saying everything needs to be on the table to giving an impression -- at least on my part -- that their leadership was more at stake and a vote for any revenue would jeopardize their standing."
All this history may not matter much. When it comes to Simpson-Bowles, perceptions of its work have often mattered more than the reality. Even though the commission did not formally endorse the blueprint Simpson and Bowles crafted, the provisions in their plan did eventually come to the House floor this April - 14 months after its Dec. 2010 release --winning just 38 votes from both parties. 382 members voted against the proposal, and it has never reached the Senate floor for a vote.
Many commentators, likewise, speak in contradictions when it comes to this history. TV host Joe Scarborough, a Republican budget hawk who often dissents from his former GOP colleagues in Congress, regularly hails Simpson-Bowles and sharply criticizes Obama for not embracing its recommendations.
At the same time, he has praised the selection of Ryan for the GOP ticket as a sign that the party is getting serious about the deficit--even though Ryan did not embrace Simpson-Bowles any more than Obama did.
But not every Republican on the commission was as unmoveable as Ryan.
Conservative Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who would never be mistaken as a moderate, voted for the Simpson-Bowles plan, which fell short because liberals and conservatives in the House found the middle ground of tax increases and spending cuts unpalatable.
In a Dec. 3, 2010, statement by Ryan to explain his "no" vote, Ryan called the commission a "success" and roundly praised both Simpson and Bowles, despite his opposition to their final proposal.
"The task was extraordinarily difficult in an equally difficult environment," Ryan said. "Despite the obstacles, the Co-Chairman successfully advanced a comprehensive and credible plan, demonstrating the magnitude of the government's spending and debt problems. Although I could not support the plan in its entirety, many of its elements surely are worthy of further pursuit. They establish a much-needed foundation and justification for fundamental policy reforms ."
A Romney campaign spokesman said the failure of the Simpson-Bowles commission rests with Obama, not Ryan and the Republicans.
"Just as he has with his Jobs Council, President Obama ignored his own fiscal commission," said Brendan Buck, the Romney campaign spokesman. "While Congressman Ryan has worked tirelessly in a bipartisan manner to solve these challenges, President Obama has racked up record debt and deficits, and under this failed leadership America saw an unprecedented credit decline."
In a Sept. 2011 speech, Bowles gave Ryan high marks for intellectual ability and integrity. "This guy is amazing," said Bowles, a former White House chief of staff. "I always thought I was good at arithmetic. This guy can run circles around me. He is honest, he is straightforward, he is sincere."
In the days since Romney announced Ryan as his vice presidential candidate, Democrats have worked hard to portray the Wisconsin Republican as the biggest roadblock to a successful deal on the fiscal commission. A senior Democratic aide who worked on the panel claimed that Ryan was the "last vote necessary" to adopt the panel's recommendations to slash about $4 trillion from the deficit.
The idea is that a "yes" vote from Ryan would have convinced the two other House Republicans on the panel, Camp and Hensarling to fall in line, providing the 14 votes that were needed to pass the commission's report.
Other Democrats, however, disagree, and suggest that there was never any chance that the House GOP trio was prepared to reach any kind of bipartisan accord at all. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) had appointed them to the commission, and at that point, Boehner was not interested in a deal.
There were attempts at bipartisanship during the commission's 10-month life. Ryan won credit from both parties for his work with Alice Rivlin, a budget expert appointed by Democrats, on a plan to dramatically overhaul health care. The commission ultimately never considered that proposal.
"The two of them presented their ideas really well," Gregg said. "If the co-chairman hadn't gotten this fiat from the president not to reopen health care in any real way, then I think we might have voted for it."
And Republicans on the panel tell a different story of intransigent Democrats unwilling to make concessions on health care that might have given Ryan and other GOP lawmakers cover to agree to other elements of a deal like new tax revenue.
"The fact that the commission didn't address Medicare is the biggest flaw in the commission," Coburn said.
That "flaw" almost surely cost the votes of Ryan and the other House Republicans, Coburn said.
Coburn rejected the suggestion that Ryan approached the commission's work as an ideologue.
"He has the moral courage to talk about the real problems when other politicians are ducking them," Coburn said.
Several GOP aides downplayed the idea that Ryan's vote influenced the other House Republicans on the panel. Hensarling was seen as a likely "no" vote from the start and Camp never warmed to the idea of trillions of dollars in new revenue.
"All three House members had very strong and independent reasons for voting no," one aide said. "The fact they all voted no didn't necessarily mean they formed a bloc."
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