The Way Forward

Renewing the American Idea


By Paul Ryan

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From the intellectual leader of the Republican party, an unvarnished look into the state of the conservative movement today and a clear plan for what needs to be done to save the American Idea.

The Way Forward challenges conventional thinking, outlines his political vision for 2014 and beyond, and shows how essential conservatism is for the future of our nation.

Beginning with a careful analysis of the 2012 election–including a look at the challenge the GOP had in reaching a majority of voters and the prevalence of identity politics–Ryan examines the state of the Republican party and dissects its challenges going forward.

The Way Forward also offers a detailed critique of not only President Obama but of the progressive movement as a whole–its genesis, its underlying beliefs and philosophies, and how its policies are steering the country to certain ruin.

Culminating in a plan for the future, The Way Forward argues that the Republican Party is and must remain a conservative party, emphasizing conservatism in a way that demonstrates how it can modernize and appeal to both our deepest concerns and highest ideals.


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I should probably explain at the outset that I never expected to write a book—and that's just one in a long list of experiences I never imagined I'd have.

I didn't expect to work in Washington, D.C., for very long, or to find that work so compelling that I'd come to view public policy as a worthy vocation.

I never thought I'd run for Congress, and when I embarked on my first campaign—at just twenty-eight years old—I didn't think I would likely win.

And I certainly never thought that I'd become the GOP vice presidential nominee.

And yet it's these unexpected moments that have provided the best opportunities to work on the issues I care about: economic growth, saving Medicare and Social Security, fixing our broken health-care system, and passing on to the next generation a nation that is secure and debt-free.

These are the kinds of challenges that ideally would bring out the best in both parties. After all, such concerns aren't the exclusive domain of liberals or conservatives—and there's common ground to be found. Yet nearly two years have passed since our last presidential election, and we still find ourselves moving in the wrong direction. We've doubled down on a lot of the programs and policies that got us off course in the first place.

And the true price of this state of affairs is the erosion of the American Idea—a way of life made possible by our commitment to the principles of freedom and equality and rooted in our respect for every person's natural rights.

When we speak about America as being exceptional, this is—in part—what we mean. And when people talk about our country being on the wrong track, this is what's at stake.

Of course, these days it's not talk about our problems that is in short supply. What's missing is fresh thinking, good solutions, and real leadership.

In this moment, we're framing up America for the twenty-first century. The questions before us are: How do we preserve the American Idea for the next generation? How do we ensure this experiment in liberty endures? And finding the answers to those questions starts with an honest debate about the different paths before us—and the choices we have to make.

One path—the course that liberal progressivism is offering—is a government-centered approach. Along this path, the federal government continues to expand, attempting to meet our every need with outdated policies that put the state at the center of our lives. It leads to a future in which America's best century is the last century. It's a future in which the American Idea is in serious jeopardy.

The second path puts society, not government, at the center of American life. Through a restoration of our founding principles, it expands freedom and fosters risk-taking, ingenuity, and creativity. Instead of growing government, it grows the economy—offering greater opportunity and prosperity for all. Along this path, government provides the necessary support rather than taking on the commanding role.

Mapping this path has been the focus of much of my work in Congress. Of course, my hope wasn't that I'd be writing about these ideas; I thought I'd be helping implement them as part of a Romney administration.

But it didn't take long for me to realize that while we may have lost an election, the cause continues. And those of us who are privileged to serve in public office have a duty to offer our fellow citizens a real and meaningful choice about the way forward. This book is my contribution to that conversation.

*     *     *

When I sat down to write, I had two questions in front of me. The first was, How did we get here? That question guides part I of this book.

It traces my own journey, which runs through Janesville, Wisconsin, where I grew up and first learned about the American Idea. And it discusses how, as a country, we slid further away from that idea, first because Republicans failed to stay true to our principles, and then because of the liberal progressive agenda that President Obama has pursued.

While part I of this book includes my recollections of people and events over the years, this is not an exhaustive memoir; where those things exist it is simply to explain my thinking—and what was happening from my viewpoint at the time. It is also not intended to be a comprehensive history. The events and conversations discussed are described as I remember them, and if I have made misstatements, it is not a product of ill intent but simply the limits of memory contending with the passage of time.

In writing this book, the other question I considered was, Where do we go from here? Part II of this book answers that question, first by looking at what liberal progressivism is offering and the vision that conservatism can deliver.

I believe the conservative vision can appeal to the majority of our fellow citizens. It offers a way of life that consists of a dynamic economy, a thriving civil society, and a government that protects our rights while offering a real safety net for those in need without overpowering the private economy and the private lives of citizens. And while the best vehicle for conservative thought and policies is the Republican Party, the GOP faces serious challenges that, in recent years, have led to critical losses at the polls.

Part II tackles this issue as well, describing the Republican Party's current vulnerabilities. Among them, the caricature of the party that the Left has promoted—and the ways in which the GOP itself has played into that caricature instead of disproving it.

In these pages, I attempt to offer some ideas about how the party can overcome this challenge and others—and reach out to Americans from every walk of life.

While it's true that our country's current problems are urgent and real, I don't view them as insurmountable. When I visit our big cities and our small-town communities, I see our untapped potential—and the signs of a great American comeback in the making. And I know if we make the right decision—if we choose the path that restores our founding principles and puts society, not government, at the center of American life—then we can renew the American Idea.

The time is right, the need is urgent, and I know we can find the way forward.

Paul Ryan

May 2014


How We Got Here


A Tale of Two Cities

When the day finally came, I changed out of my suit, threw on a camouflage hat and shirt, and slipped out the back. In hindsight, I probably could have done without the camo. It was broad daylight, and I was surrounded by neighbors I'd known my whole life—and media trackers who had spent three weeks reporting my every move. Any one of them could easily have spotted me.

It was August 2012, and the press was eager for any indication that Mitt Romney had picked his running mate. Reporters from ABC and NBC camped out in my front yard, trying to figure out if I was missing so they could report that an announcement was coming.

Frankly, my wife, Janna, and I thought that anyone looking for breaking news on our lawn in Janesville that summer was going to be disappointed. In the days leading up to the Wisconsin primary on April 3, Mitt Romney and I had crisscrossed the state campaigning. We grabbed food at Culver's in Johnson Creek. I introduced him to my cousin at Schreiner's Restaurant in Fond du Lac. We visited with phone bank volunteers in Fitchburg. Along the way, we got to know one another. We talked about faith—my Catholicism, his Mormonism. We shared stories about our kids. We had long discussions about economics and what his initial legislative push would look like if he were elected president. We discussed what his first budget proposal would include and which tax and entitlement reforms he would advance to help get the economy growing and our debt under control.

By the time we'd wrapped up our trip, I thought Mitt Romney would make an outstanding president, but I did not think I'd be his choice for a running mate.

For starters, word had it that the "short list" was pretty long and included a lot of first-rate names: Chris Christie, Tim Pawlenty, Kelly Ayotte, Marco Rubio, Condoleezza Rice, Rob Portman, and John Thune.

Then, there was the matter of my work as chairman of the House Budget Committee. I was—and am—proud of the budget proposals we produced, but they contained the kind of specifics that can be easily mischaracterized in the rough-and-tumble, sound-bite atmosphere of a presidential campaign. There were also the changes I'd proposed to shore up Social Security and Medicare. If Mitt added me to the ticket, he would own them and have to defend them, too. I wasn't sure that was something he or his strategists would want to do.

So I was a bit surprised when, several weeks after our Wisconsin trip, Mitt called.

"We've got a list of people we're considering for the VP position on the ticket," Mitt explained. "I'm calling because I am hoping that you and Janna will consider going through the vetting process with us."

"It's really an honor to be considered," I said. "I'd have to talk with Janna about it, but we're definitely interested."

"Great," said Mitt. "You two talk. In the meantime, Beth Myers from our team will send over the form that you need to fill out."

The form turned out to be a very, very long questionnaire. The day it arrived, Janna and I spent a Sunday afternoon poring through it all. We flipped through page after page of inquiries into taxes, finances, policy positions, and drug use. There were dozens of questions. When all was said and done, it would take one month of work and five full notebooks to answer all of them.

I turned to Janna and said, "You realize that if we do this and Mitt asks us to join the ticket, we have to say yes. The way I see it, we're pretty much making the decision now, so we have to be right with it."

Janna nodded. "That's right. I don't think there's any turning back once we fill this out," she said. "If we send this back to them, we'll have to be all in, but I doubt we're going to get picked. You're the guy with all the spending cuts and policy specifics, and that guy never gets picked."

We spent a long time talking things through. For us, the whole decision really came down to two questions: What could a Romney presidency mean for the country? And what would this decision mean for our family?

For years, I'd been working on issues I really cared about—retirement security, health-care reform, and a debt-free future. I'd long hoped the policy proposals my colleagues and I had been advancing in the House might be championed by the GOP nominee—a goal that had new urgency given a sluggish economic recovery and high unemployment rate. Joining the ticket exceeded even those aspirations; it could make our proposals some of the guiding documents in a Republican presidency. When Janna and I looked at the decision that way, it seemed like an amazing opportunity.

The campaign would also change our family life. Almost every week, I left our home in Janesville and boarded a plane for Washington, D.C., while Janna and the kids started their routine of school, sports practices, and homework. At night, I'd talk on the phone with them before crashing on a cot in my office. Typically, I'd be back in the district in time for the weekend, but if things were busy and the House stayed in session, I might have only a twenty-four-hour window to spend with Janna, Liza, Charlie, and Sam. As we discussed how this decision could affect our children, I remembered something George W. Bush once told me: Life in the White House is actually pretty nice for a family. Compared to Congress, we'd actually see each other more. Living in the vice president's residence would mean we'd be under the same roof seven days a week.

So we filled out the questionnaire, and then we tried not to get our hopes up. Our family calendar was a testament to just how slim we thought the chances were that I'd be spending the rest of the year visiting battleground states. The dates were filled with reelection rallies, a family backpacking trip, and an annual bow-hunting outing with my brother-in-law, Mark.

There were even plans for a consolation prize: a wood pellet smoker I'd seen at the Janesville Ace Hardware store earlier in the summer. I told Janna I had my eye on that smoker. "Okay," she said, smiling. "Then let's make a deal. When Mitt Romney does not pick you to be his running mate, I'll let you buy it." That was how we thought about it: We were sure being bumped off the short list was a matter of when, not if. In my mind, I was already making plans for weekends spent hunting and smoking venison bratwurst and summer sausage.

Then, early on a Sunday morning in late July, I got an e-mail from Beth Myers, the senior aide who had been Mitt's chief of staff when he was governor of Massachusetts and was now running the search process for him. She asked to speak with me later in the day. I was pretty sure I knew what was coming. I drove home from a taping for Face the Nation and picked up Janna and the kids for church. "We're getting closure," I told her. "I'm getting the thanks-but-no-thanks call today."

When Beth and I connected later, I was prepared to accept the news gracefully. Instead, she said, "It's become a very, very short list. We need you to fill out another questionnaire. And we need it back by the end of the day." The last one had taken a lawyer, an accountant, and several weeks to put together. Would I be able to finish this one that quickly? Yes, she assured me. This one would be easy.

When I got the e-mail, there were a lot of odd questions: What's your neck size? What's your shirt size? Would you rather travel from one town to the next late at night or make the trip early the next day? What do you eat for breakfast?

I showed the questionnaire to Janna. She looked at me and said, "Holy cow. This could actually happen."

Not long after we returned the form, Mitt called and invited me to a meeting at Beth's house in Brookline, Massachusetts, a suburb outside of Boston. My good friend and chief of staff, Andy Speth, drove me down to Chicago a couple of days later and checked me into a hotel at O'Hare under his name. The next morning I took the first flight into Hartford, Connecticut, where Beth's nineteen-year-old son, Curt, picked me up and then drove me to the Myers family home. I actually spent the last stretch of the drive under a blanket in the backseat of the car. I was told not to emerge until we pulled into the garage and closed the door.

The day before, I had asked Beth if any other potential running mates had been invited to a similar meeting, if this was a final interview of sorts. She replied, "Nope, you're the only one—unless, of course, you screw this up."

Once I got inside the house, Beth welcomed me with a nice lunch while we waited for Mitt. Then, when he arrived, Beth left, and Mitt and I sat together at her dining room table. He thanked me for making the trip.

"It's important to me that you understand why I'm running for president," Mitt said. "I'm deeply worried about the country. I look at all of our challenges and I see President Barack Obama taking us in the wrong direction. I'm afraid that if we don't change course now, we're going to put all of these burdens—the debt, the deficit, a stagnant economy—on our kids and grandkids. We could lose the country."

"That's what motivates me, too," I said. "And it's why the last few years have been really frustrating. For a while, I had hope that we might be able to get something bipartisan done at least on the fiscal side of things. I feel a great sense of urgency about that, but it's going to take more than a Republican majority in the House. We need a president who will work with us and make the debt and the economy a priority."

Mitt nodded. "Well, that's why I'm running. The question I've got in front of me right now is who is in the best position to help me—not just to win this election but to govern if we win. I've read the things you've written, what you've said. My team made sure I had all the information I needed to think about this decision from every angle."

"Speaking from the other side of the process," I said, "I assure you it's definitely been thorough."

"Look, my own view is that it comes down to this: You know how Congress works, and you've shown that you know how to get things done there. I want to fix our economic problems and turn the country around, but I'm going to need help. I know how to manage large organizations. I know business and I understand economics. You know Congress and the budget and how to navigate Washington, D.C. We complement each other. So I'm asking for your help with this. Will you join me on the ticket?"

I shook his hand and said, "Let's get this done."

*     *     *

Within a week, I was slipping out the back door of our house in Janesville in my hunting camo. The campaign's insistence that everything be kept under wraps meant the number of people who knew what I was up to could be tallied on two hands. My kids didn't even know the news yet. The whole thing felt surreal.

The house that we live in now is on the same block and about a hundred yards from where I grew up. So, as I snuck across our backyard, I made my way into the woods where I had spent afternoons and weekends playing as a kid. After more than a week in uncharted waters, it felt good to be in a familiar spot. I could see the place where my friends and I had played capture the flag. I crawled over part of the tree fort that I had built with my buddy Tom Thorpe. Out ahead of me was my childhood home. It was the first moment I'd really had to myself since the meeting with Mitt.

There, in the quiet of the woods where I grew up, the reality of what was about to happen hit me. I thought about our kids. Janna and I had made a conscious decision to join the ticket, but they had not. They didn't even know what was coming. Would they be ready? Would this change be good for them?

I also thought about the gravity of the moment and what the election could mean for our country—both if we won and if we lost. I said a silent prayer that I'd be up to the challenge, that I'd be worthy of the faith so many people had placed in me, that I'd make the most of this chance. Then I called Andy Speth and told him I was ready to go.

Minutes later, Andy's wife, Katy, appeared on the street a few yards away, driving the Speth family Chevy Express van. I jogged out of the woods, alongside my parents' old house, down the driveway where I learned how to ride a bike, and jumped in. Andy, Janna, Liza, Charlie, and Sam were waiting there, huddled in the backseat with the blinds closed. Together, we drove through the streets of Janesville, past the homes of friends and neighbors and family members. We didn't stop until we reached a small airport in Waukegan, Illinois.

Back at our house, my sister-in-law, Dana, did her best to make it look like another regular night at the Ryans' was well under way. She turned on all the lights, let our dogs out into the backyard and brought them back in again, and kept the volume up on the TV. Then, at bedtime, she shut the place down.

Later Dana told us how she watched from our living room as Alex Moe, a nice young woman who had been our NBC tracker for several weeks, made her way to the front door of our house. She knocked, hoping for comment on the campaign's announcement that their VP pick would officially join Mitt on the deck of the USS Wisconsin the following day. No one answered, but Alex didn't go away completely empty-handed; our neighbor Marcia Nelesen came over and offered her a beer.

By midnight, the crawl on MSNBC announced "NBC News: Sources say Rep. Paul Ryan is Romney's vice presidential pick." Everyone kept reporting, "We hear it's Ryan," and Alex tried to explain to Chuck Todd that there was nothing going on at our house. As Chuck sat behind the anchor desk back at MSNBC headquarters, Alex stood on our front lawn and said, "We do believe Congressman Ryan and his wife and his three children are inside." Meanwhile, our plane had already touched down in Elizabeth City, North Carolina.

The flight down was an emotional trip. Big secrets among kids often become rumors among neighbors in a small town, ricocheting back and forth and up and down the street. We'd decided it would be best to wait and tell Liza, Charlie, and Sam when we were on the plane. By the time we were in the air, our kids thought that Janna and I had lost our minds. In the span of an afternoon, they had been rushed out the back door of our house only to spend three hours waiting in the Speths' living room. Then they sat huddled in the backseat of a van as they watched their dad come running out of the woods. There were a lot of questions.

All along, Janna and I had been worried about how our children would take the news. Waiting to tell them had seemed like a good idea—not just for the sake of secrecy, but also for their peace of mind. We thought it would be easier to digest everything as it was happening instead of trying to envision it in the abstract. But as the moment to tell them finally arrived, Janna and I thought that maybe we'd made a mistake. We'd had time to get comfortable with the idea of a campaign and what it could mean. Maybe all of this was too much to spring on them at once.

Liza, then ten, had already started to put the pieces together. Naturally gregarious and adventurous, she was eager to get the details about our impromptu trip. At eight years old, Charlie was a little more quiet and shy. He and our youngest, normally happy-go-lucky seven-year-old Sam, were openly confused and a little unsettled by the day's events.

As we prepared to take off, the questions kept coming. What is this plane? Where are we going?

When we got in the air, Janna and I gathered them around.

"You know how I've been talking with Mitt Romney?" I asked. "Well, he's asked me to join him on the ticket for vice president. We're flying down to make the announcement."

"Oh my gosh!" said Liza. "We're going there right now?"

"Yeah," I said. "We're flying to North Carolina now, and then we're going to drive to Virginia tomorrow, where we'll do a big rally to make the announcement. Isn't that great?"

Liza nodded enthusiastically.

"When is the election?" Sam asked.

"It's going to be in November," I replied.

Then Charlie put it all together. "Wait a second," he said. "Dad, does this mean we have to leave Janesville?"

Janna and I looked at each other and exchanged a nervous glance. "Well, if we win, yeah. It does," I explained. "We'd have to leave for four or eight years."

And then came the tears. It wasn't totally unexpected, but for me as a dad, it was hard.

Charlie's first concerns were about switching schools. "What about Saint John's? What about my friends?" he asked. "I can't leave Janesville. Dad, we don't want to leave Janesville."

Sam started to get upset, too. "We're leaving our house? Why are we leaving our house? What about my friend Carter? What about my teacher?"

Janna and I tried comforting them with assurances that friends could visit and there would be great teachers at a new school. Janna put her arm around Charlie. "This is a big deal for Dad, for all of us," she said. "Our family is going to get to do something that can help the country and all of our friends back home."

It was no use. The mood on the plane had shifted from excitement to a sense of loss and worry.

"Guys, I know this is hard," I said. "If we win, you're right—a lot of things are going to change, and some of those changes will be difficult. But some of them are going to be for the better. We'll all be together under the same roof during the week. We can eat dinner together every night."

Finally, in a desperate effort to console them, I added, "Plus, if we win, the place we get to live in has a pool."

That stopped Sam in his tracks. "We get to move to a place with a pool?"


"Wow," Sam said, mulling it over. "Well, that's pretty cool. I could probably move if it meant we were going to have a pool."

Sam was quick to come around, and Liza was old enough to see the bigger picture. For Charlie, it took about a month longer.

I knew how he felt. Having lived in Janesville for thirty-eight of my forty-two years, part of me didn't want to leave, either. Janesville was more than just my home or where I grew up. Our town shaped my values and my worldview. It taught me about the importance of family and the meaning of community. It was where I witnessed firsthand the kinds of life stories that are possible only in our country, and where I came to understand that with our rights and opportunities comes a responsibility to pass along a better country to our kids and grandkids. For me, Janesville was—and is—the embodiment of the American Idea.

*     *     *

The American Idea is a way of life made possible by our commitment to the principles of freedom and equality—and rooted in our respect for every person's natural rights. It's the kind of life Janesville's first residents were seeking when they settled our town in 1835—not long before one of my ancestors, an Irish peasant named James Ryan, arrived on the scene.

In 1851, six years into the Irish potato famine, James got on a ship bound for America. Like hundreds of thousands of his fellow countrymen and -women, James made his way across the Atlantic Ocean. Signs posted throughout the boat tried to prepare them for the challenges they would face when starting over in the New World. A good friend of mine who's into Irish history recently sent me a copy of one such sign. It reads:

Advice to Irish Emigrants: In the United States, labor is there the first condition of life, and industry is the lot of all men. Wealth is not idolized; but there is no degradation connected with labor; on the contrary, it is honorable, and held in general estimation.

In the remote parts of America, an industrious youth may follow any occupation without being looked down upon or sustain loss of character, and he may rationally expect to raise himself in the world by his labor.

In America, a man's success must altogether rest with himself—it will depend on his industry, sobriety, diligence and virtue.

For a man like James Ryan, this would have been welcome news. Having suffered through years of setbacks brought on by famine and fever in his homeland, he was ready to prove himself and make his mark.


On Sale
Aug 19, 2014
Page Count
304 pages

Paul Ryan

About the Author

Paul Ryan has served as the United States Representative for Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District and chairman of the House Budget Committee. He was the Republican Party nominee for Vice President of the United States in the 2012 election.

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