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Opinion

Paul Ryan's optimism, Jack Kemp's legacy

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Opinion,Op-Eds

Eighteen years ago, as a brash young conservative determined to work in national politics, I concocted an audacious plan. I would use my upcoming semester in Washington as a springboard to work in the West Wing. Believing that I could predict which organization would produce the Republican's next nominee for president or vice president of the United States, I secured an internship at a newly formed think tank called Empower America.

In retrospect, my plan was absurd, except that it almost worked. In 1996, one of Empower America's directors, former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander was a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination, and another, Jack Kemp, was ultimately drafted as Bob Dole's running mate. My master plan was derailed when Clinton won re-election. "But for all my careful maneuvering to work with a future Republican candidate for president or vice president, I hardly took notice of a young fellow working only a few feet away, named Paul Ryan.

I wish I had exciting stories about working with Ryan, but I hardly remember him. I was so enamored of working for the Republican elites, I didn't pay any attention to the young employees, whom I viewed as friends and sometimes competitors. Yet, knowing the organization as I do, it makes a great deal of sense that Empower America would inspire one of the Republican Party's brightest stars.

Notwithstanding its founders' many years working inside the Beltway, the organization was brimming with the optimism of Washington novices. Even as the Democrats controlled Congress and the presidency, we had the sense that we could turn the tide. Defying the political fatalism that dominated the Republican Party after George Bush's defeat in 1992, we worked tirelessly to sell the virtues of traditional values, limited government and free markets.

This sense of optimism that was a defining characteristic of Empower America was bolstered in November of 1994, when Republicans won control of Congress. Gathered around the television in the conference room, we watched excitedly as Sen. Richard Shelby, D-Ala., announced that following the GOP's landslide victory, he was switching parties. Cheers erupted among the assembled employees. The world had turned upside-down. Those of us working for this upstart think tank felt, perhaps undeservedly, that we played a small part in the revolution.

Ryan's work in the years since fit perfectly with the youthful confidence that pervaded Empower America in the mid-1990s. On the House Budget Committee, Ryan sought to slow the growth of government spending. Undoubtedly influenced by his mentor, Kemp, Ryan authored a budget plan meant to fundamentally change the debate in Washington.

Rather than trim the shrinking pool of discretionary spending, Ryan's plan sought to simultaneously simplify the tax code and restructure government entitlements. Believing that the country was sliding into a fiscal abyss, Ryan single-handedly created something long absent from Washington politics -- a serious debate on the future of American society.

It's worth noting that any member of Congress can write a budget plan, but somehow Ryan persuaded his Republican colleagues to support it. Now, having secured a place on the Republican ticket, he stands a real chance of igniting a conservative revolution much like Kemp did when Ronald Reagan was swept into office 32 years ago.

With hindsight, it's clear that a naive optimism lay at the heart of Empower America's true legacy. While Ryan deserves the credit for changing the debate in Washington, the organization, founded upon the ruins of the old Republican order, probably played a part in shaping his vision of the future. Undoubtedly, Kemp would be pleased.

Matthew Woessner is an associate professor of political science and public policy at Penn State Harrisburg.

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