Get the Led Out

Those of us who patrol Capitol Hill daily know that if you spot GOP vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), chances are he’ll have earbuds strung from his suit jacket to an iPod spinning Led Zeppelin riffs. And Zeppelin’s lyrics may be useful to shedding some light on Mitt Romney’s running mate.

“Carry me back, carry me back, carry me back, baby, where I come from.”– Rock and Roll, Led Zeppelin

Ryan did his first campaign swing through the crucial swing state of Ohio Wednesday. He paid a visit to his alma mater, Miami University in Oxford where he graduated in 1992 (In the interest of disclosure, Ryan and I were students at Miami at the same time but were not familiar with each other). Sitting in a battleground state, Miami is long steeped in presidential and vice presidential politics. The addition of Ryan to the ticket only adds to that lore.

In fact, Ryan was a freshman at Miami in the fall of 1988 when then Vice President George H.W. Bush spoke on campus during his campaign against Michael Dukakis. Ryan had graduated from Miami by September, 1992 when then Sen. Al Gore (D-TN) campaigned at Miami as Bill Clinton’s running mate.

Ryan’s the second vice presidential candidate to hail from Miami. 1852 Miami grad and President Benjamin Harrison tapped fellow Miami graduate Whitelaw Reid as his running mate for his second campaign in 1892 but lost to Grover Cleveland.

“Many is a word that only keeps you guessing. Guessing about a thing. You really ought to know.” – Over the Hills and Far Away, Led Zeppelin

I’ve covered Ryan closely for years on Capitol Hill. And I had a distinct feeling that something was up with the Congressman several weeks before Mitt Romney tapped him for the Republican ticket.

It was well-known that Ryan was in the GOP vice presidential selection mix along with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) and others. But sometimes in politics, what they don’t tell you screams just as loudly as what they do. And observation can be key as well.

The clues:

Once it was clear he was the presumptive GOP standard bearer, Romney toured the country, appearing on stage with various Republican figures often mentioned as potential VP fodder. Some in the press began describing these rallies as running mate “auditions.” Ryan’s first joint appearance with Romney went particularly well. That prompted several senior House Republican hands to declare that the former Massachusetts governor had a “man crush” on Ryan.

Ryan also became a key campaign surrogate for Romney. Around the same time, my radar went up as Ryan quietly shifted two of his top aides from the House Budget Committee (which he chairs), Conor Sweeney and Vanessa Day, over to the political side. Sweeney and Day were no longer handling day-to-day budget issues in the halls of Congress. They instead worked out of a Capitol Hill townhouse on messaging the touchstone of Ryan’s Congressional career: the “Ryan Budget.” The House approved the Ryan budget two years in a row as its’ blueprint for government spending, deep cuts and fundamental changes to entitlement programs. It’s highly-controversial, even in Republican circles. And when Romney drafted Ryan, Democrats could hardly control their glee at the opportunity to run against the Ryan budget, its changes to Medicare and cuts to social programs.

Also, Ryan is known on Capitol Hill for having a top-notch staff. But in the final weeks of July and first week of August, there was a noticeable change surrounding the Wisconsin Republican. Some of Ryan’s aides weren’t as prompt as they usually are with returning emails or phone calls. And Ryan, who does his share of media appearances, went virtually underground as the House launched a debate on the cornerstone of the GOP’s policy agenda for later this year and 2013: tax rates and tax reform. Ryan’s office declined a request from Fox producers to book the Congressman for a live interview in late July and early August as the House considered a GOP-sponsored plan to extend the so-called Bush era tax breaks. Ryan also uncharacteristically declined comment when I buttonholed him about the tax debate as he boarded an elevator just off the House floor following a vote sequence.

One of the most significant signs that something may have been up with Ryan came on Sunday, August 5. That’s when Romney smuggled an incognito Ryan into Brookline, MA to huddle at the home of his top aide Beth Myers. Romney offered Ryan the number two slot that day. But real-time events can sometimes disrupt even the best of plans.

That’s the day a gunman burst into a Sikh temple in Ryan’s district and opened fire on worshipers.

Ryan’s office did not immediately respond to inquiries about the shooting. By contrast, less than two weeks earlier, Aurora, CO police accused James Holmes of shooting up a midnight movie theatre showing the latest Batman film. By 5 am, Aurora’s local Congressman, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), was on the air talking about the massacre.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) commented shortly after the Sikh shooting. So did Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI), even though the incident didn’t unfold in her district. When Ryan’s office did respond to an inquiry, a spokesman indicated that it was still an active police investigation and didn’t want to comment prematurely.

Ryan’s office finally did issue a statement from the Congressman later that Sunday afternoon.

“I’m deeply saddened by this malicious crime and remain grateful for the selfless, dedicated service of the emergency response teams and law enforcement officials who continue to investigate this matter,” Ryan said. “I am hopeful that we will all come together, united in a shared desire for peace and justice, and stand with the Sikh community as we grieve this loss of life.”

Ryan’s office also declined a request for him to appear later that night – even by telephone – during a segment about the shooting on Fox Report.

“The piper’s calling you to join him.” – Stairway to Heaven, Led Zeppelin

By that point, Ryan had already accepted Romney’s invitation to join the ticket. The Romney campaign then delayed the running mate rollout by a day so Ryan could attend a memorial service to honor the fallen Sikhs back in his district.

Congress was out that week. And for the most part, Ryan stayed clear of the press until he joined Romney on stage in Norfolk, VA last Saturday. Mindful of landmines the GOP’s last vice presidential selection encountered four years ago, the Romney campaign is taking a measured approach with Ryan’s public encounters so far.

This synchs with a more calibrated disposition that Ryan’s taken with the press in recent years. Early in his career, the presumptive GOP vice presidential nominee might chat up members of the Capitol Hill press corps in a corridor at almost any time. But it’s different when you’re a junior Congressman trying to get attention from reporters and fellow lawmakers about the way you’d fix Washington’s spending woes.

This is not to say that Ryan became inaccessible. But it was clear that Ryan was increasingly selective about what he would comment on, when, how and to whom. Speeches at venues such as the Economic Club of Chicago became an increasingly popular forum for Ryan to advocate his budget reform gospel.

Video productions also emerged as a preferred means of communication for Ryan. Some were slickly produced in the House Budget Committee hearing room. Others, were simple. As the House prepared to consider Ryan’s budget in mid-March, the Congressman released a video where he deliberately walked down an abandoned, marble corridor late at night in the Cannon House Office Building. Ominous music plays as Ryan approaches a camera positioned on a dolly, backpedaling away from him.

“This coming debt crisis is the most predictable crisis we’ve ever had in this country,” Ryan intones. “This is why we’re acting. This is why we’re leading. This is why we’re proposing – and passing out of the House – a budget to fix this problem – so we can save our country for ourselves and our children’s future.”

Ask any politician and they’d much rather give a speech or make a video where they control the contours of their message. Of course, it’s only natural that an ambitious lawmaker might grow more guarded when people start throwing around your name for higher office.

“Many dreams come true. And some have silver linings” – Over the Hills and Far Away – Led Zeppelin

After the 2008 electoral slaughter suffered by House Republicans, many courted Ryan to challenge then-Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) for his post. Ryan declined. Some encouraged him to run for governor. He took a pass on that contest. In fact in May, 2011, Ryan abruptly cancelled a shoot for one of his signature videos when Sen. Herb Kohl (D-WI) unexpectedly announced he wouldn’t run for re-election. Ryan canned the shoot and dashed home to Wisconsin to ponder if he should enter that race. He didn’t. In the summer of 2011, Ryan admitted he came close to running for president this round but ultimately opted out.

So as the party faithful projected their hopes onto Ryan – and Ryan dutifully burnished his image, impromptu Q and A’s with reporters in the Speaker’s Lobby off the House floor with reporters became less frequent.

“And if you listen very hard. The tune will come to you at last.” – Stairway to Heaven, Led Zeppelin

Perhaps as a protective mechanism, Ryan increasingly turned to his iPod when he walked around the Congressional campus. Often dialed into Zeppelin tracks, Ryan might simply point to the earbuds when confronted by a reporter. It’s unclear whether Ryan was entranced by Jimmy Page’s mastery of his Fender Telecaster on “Heartbreaker” or dissecting J.R.R. Tolkien references in “The Battle of Evermore.” But regardless, Ryan wasn’t up for questions as often as he used to be.

This is a dance reminiscent of choreography between President Reagan and White House reporters. ABC’s Sam Donaldson would bark questions at Reagan as he walked across the White House lawn to board Marine One. As if on cue, Reagan would cup his hand to his ear and then shake Donaldson off, pointing to the thrashing of the helicopter blades. The din inevitably drowned out Donaldson.

The relationship between reporters and politicians on the presidential and vice presidential campaign trails can never be as free-flowing as the exchanges on Capitol Hill. The Romney camp is mindful of the tensions between the last GOP vice presidential nominee and the press. That’s why it will be interesting to observe the boundaries the Romney campaign sets for Ryan when dealing with the media – and what boundaries Ryan is comfortable with himself. And if things don’t go well, to quote Led Zeppelin, the press corps could declare that the campaign is suffering from a “Communication Breakdown.”