After 88 days as Mitt Romney's vice-presidential candidate, Paul Ryan is back in his natural habitat: the offices of the House Budget Committee on Capitol Hill. But things are not the same. Instead of poring over spreadsheets and growth projections this early-December evening, he's practicing the opening joke of his keynote speech to the Jack Kemp Foundation annual dinner, which will take place later that night. Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio will receive an award for leadership at the event, an award Ryan won when it was first given last year. Because both men are potential presidential candidates in 2016, the dinner is being touted as the start of the next GOP primary campaign. Projecting his voice across the small office, Ryan says to an imaginary Rubio, "You're joining an elite group of past recipients--so far, it's just me and you. I'll see you at the reunion dinner--table for two. Know any good diners in Iowa or New Hampshire?"
If Ryan's one-month break from presidential politics seems brief, it's not entirely his fault. GOP bigs and moneymen are looking to him as a kind of young, Catholic Moses who can lead the party out of the wilderness of its 2012 defeat by standing up for conservative values while appealing, at least in theory, to the poor, minorities and women. But Ryan is facing an early test as he tries to reboot: how to find a politically safe route down the fiscal cliff. If a deal takes shape to avoid tax hikes and spending cuts before the end of this month, Ryan will face a hard choice: side with a compromise or reject a deal on principle. Because of his budget expertise and his reputation as a fiscal hawk, one adviser says, Ryan carries at least 65 votes with him whichever way he goes, making him possibly the most powerful man in the GOP after House Speaker John Boehner.
Both paths present risks for Ryan--and the party. If he accepts the tax hikes Democrats demand, he could alienate his longtime fans on the resolutely antitax right. But if he stands firm and takes the party over the fiscal cliff, he could not only damage his qualifications as a problem solver but also start a war within the GOP. In an effort to keep him on board for a deal, Boehner tapped Ryan to be part of the team that is planning the strategy for talks with the White House.
Which way will Ryan go? "I believe, in this budget fight, that you can get to common ground without compromising principles," he says after his speech practice. But moments later he declares that common ground is possible only "so long as the [tax] rates are not going up." The White House calls higher tax rates on the wealthy a precondition for a deal, not least because the President campaigned and won on that very issue. Even some conservatives have said Republicans should accept them as inevitable.