Stephen Reader covers politics for It's a Free Country, WNYC's interactive politics site. He joined the station in 2010 and has also worked for Studio 360, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning show about art, culture, and creativity.
The death of Paul Ryan's father had a profound impact on the Congressman's politics, which emphasize individualism over collectivism.
Less than two weeks before Mitt Romney announced that his running mate would be the budget-slashing gym rat from Janesville, Wisconsin, a profile of Rep. Ryan appeared in the New Yorker. Author Ryan Lizza found that the Congressman's affinity for small government and skepticism of the safety net were deeply rooted in the work of libertarian superhero Ayn Rand. Lizza said one could trace a line through Ryan's entire political career back through his discovery of Rand all the way to age 16, when his father died of a heart attack.
"I don’t think it's too far a leap to see someone at that age losing his father, having to take care of his family, and someone giving you Atlas Shrugged and learning about the importance of individualism," Lizza said on The Brian Lehrer Show Monday morning. It also turned Ryan into a health nut and avid exerciser; neither his father nor grandfather lived past age 60.
The boiled-down, blunt version of Ryan's politics could easily be a mantra informed by that experience: "Fend for yourself." Liberals tend to interpret this as blasphemy; the modern conservative movement takes it as gospel, which is why Ryan's star has risen over the last few years.
"As he said in the first version of his budget, he believes that you can't truly be free unless you are taking care of yourself to the maximum extent possible," Lizza said. "If you believe that, then you belive that if you're getting free health care from the government when you're 65 years old, then you're not fully responsible for yourself."
Among Ryan's boldest, most controversial proposals is his prescription for Medicare, which would replace government health coverage with subsidized vouchers for seniors to purchase private health insurance plans. Detractors complain that these plans would be less comprehensive while requiring seniors to shoulder a larger financial burden than they would under the current Medicare system.
Ironically, some of the most vocal opponents of Ryan's proposal come from his own church. Catholic leaders decried Ryan's Medicare plan, saying it would shirk our responsibility to take care of the poor.
"He tried to move away from Ayn Rand defining him," in recent years, Lizza told Brian Lehrer, at least in part because her atheist views didn't square with his. "He embraced Catholic thinking as defining him, and a lot of Catholic bishops attacked him and the budget. There were a series of nuns that got on a bus and actually followed him around America to protest the budget."
Republicans initially balked at Ryan's proposals too. Newt Gingrich called it "right-wing social engineering." But that was more than a year ago; and well before a long, grueling primary season that was very much a personal responsibility arms race for the Republican hopefuls. If the race has indeed come down to individualism versus collectivism, Mitt Romney took a calculated, shrewd risk picking someone who's been living the virtues of the latter since he was 16 years old.