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One of the most fraught and fascinating relationships in Washington over the next few months—and likely the next four years—will be that of Paul Ryan and Barack Obama. Ryan is defeated but unbowed. Obama is triumphant but trying hard not to gloat. The men are archrivals who must find a way to work together to keep the U.S. from plunging off the “fiscal cliff” and then to get the country on the path to balanced budgets.
It won’t be easy for either the House Budget Committee Chairman or the president. Republican strategist Karl Rove told Fox News’ Neil Cavuto in August that Ryan “gets under the president’s skin.” For his part, Ryan let it be known that he was stung when Obama criticized him and his budget proposal last year while Ryan (unbeknownst to the president) was sitting in the audience.
I asked three Washington insiders whether they thought Ryan and Obama would be able to have a constructive relationship after the bitterness of a presidential campaign in which Ryan ran and lost as Mitt Romney’s running mate.
Norman Ornstein, a political scientist, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and co-author, with Thomas Mann, of It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism:
“Ryan has other ambitions now, and comes at it from a different perspective. … It probably makes him less accommodating. You’ve now got serious jockeying for leadership of the conservative movement of the Republican Party.” To win the Republican nomination for president in 2016, Ryan may choose to stick to a strong conservative message rather than move quickly to compromise with Obama, Ornstein says. “It’s a tricky path, let’s put it that way. A lot of peril in that path. I think it’s his inclination. He’s going to get a lot of advice to do that. But he’s a smart guy. He’s very much an ideologue, but he’s not crazy.”
Steve Bell, senior director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, who served on former Republican Senator Pete V. Domenici’s staff from 1974 to 1986 and 1996 to 2009:
“I think he [Ryan] is going to be part and parcel of the negotiations.” Ryan’s staff on the budget committee, led by Austin Smythe, “essentially become the speaker’s staff” in the last session of Congress, Bell says. “They do all the real number-crunching. That worked in the past, and I think that’s how they’ll work it in the future.” Bell says that Obama is a loner who doesn’t bond easily with members of Congress, especially those across the aisle like Ryan. On the other hand, he says, “They’re both athletes. … Males bond this way. There’s a pretty good chance that they’ll be able to get along sufficiently well to make a deal and stick to it. … One thing the president knows about Ryan, he knows he won’t be able to play fast and loose with the assumptions, because he knows that Ryan knows these numbers cold.”
Michael Zolandz, a partner and the practice leader for public policy and regulation at the SNR Denton lobbying firm:
“They were well and truly familiar with one another’s viewpoints and approach before they got into this campaign. … Having been on the same national stage, they have a little bit more, I wouldn’t say admiration, but a better sense of the other’s mojo and capabilities. That kind of familiarity engenders a certain degree of respect. … I don’t think there’s intense hatred. I think there’s significant disagreement on the numbers.” Ryan isn’t the final decision-maker, Zolandz says. “While Paul Ryan’s thoughts were felt [last session] as a matter of politics and leadership, it’s still [House Speaker John] Boehner’s play. He’s still the leader.”