Opinion Columns & Blogs

Ryan, Brownback similar, different

In 1995, 25-year-old Paul Ryan became the legislative director for first-term congressman Sam Brownback. Now he’s an almost-even-money bet to become vice president of the United States.

Ryan has always presented himself as an economic policy wonk, although his record on social issues like abortion and gay marriage stands at the far-right side of the spectrum (no abortions for rape victims).

Conversely, Brownback has built his career on a raft of social issues, even though his economic preferences have always emphasized market solutions, low taxes and smaller government (well, save for farm subsidies).

Both Ryan and Brownback have demonstrated deep political ambition from their high school days, and for all their belief in the private sector, they have almost never been off the governmental payroll.

Even before college, Ryan committed to the Ayn Rand philosophy of pure, hard-edged capitalism. This commitment remains the bedrock of his belief in low taxes and immense cuts to public-sector spending. Like Romney’s tax plan, Ryan’s budget places onerous costs on the middle class and the poor for non-defense discretionary spending and health care while cutting taxes for the richest Americans.

Early in his career, according to many of his law school and partisan contemporaries, Brownback was quite the opposite of Ryan: an ambitious politico without much explicit ideology, more or less a Bob Dole Republican.

Brownback developed his ideology through a growing religious conservatism, which became the hallmark of his 14-year Senate career. While Ryan’s political ambition propelled him through the ranks of GOP House members, Brownback’s ambitions brought him back to Kansas with a new emphasis on economic issues.

In the 20 months since his sweeping 2010 victory, the governor has moved the state on a path toward smaller government and lower taxes – hallmarks of the politically essential Republican agenda in both state and nation.

Like Ryan, Brownback has his own economic guru – the supply-side economist Arthur Laffer, who last week in Johnson County bestowed, once again, his blessing on the governor’s historic tax cuts.

Both Ryan and Brownback have combined their ambitions with economic beliefs that go far beyond well-established theories. Still, Rand’s hyper-capitalism and Laffer’s tax-cutting have served these politicians – especially Ryan – very well.

The U.S. Congress is unlikely, even with a Romney-Ryan victory, to experiment with an Ayn Rand approach. But the Kansas Legislature and Brownback have already decided to conduct a full-bore experiment in radical tax-cutting for the wealthy.

I’m a big fan of political ambition, and both Ryan and Brownback are mid-career successes as they seek national office. But Ryan’s constancy and apparent seriousness has, in the short term, pulled him ahead of Brownback, who must quietly hope for a Romney loss and a sparkling economic performance in Kansas.

That parlay is a true long shot.

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