Paul Ryan goes into Obama attack mode at the Reagan library

Rep. Paul Ryan on Tuesday was the third Republican with vice-presidential buzz to speak at the Reagan library this election season. But his speech had a different purpose.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin participates in an onstage interview during the Peterson Foundation 2012 Fiscal Summit in Washington earlier this month.

Paul Ryan is the latest rising GOP star to make the pilgrimage to the Reagan library, where the House Budget Committee chairman delivered an address Tuesday night.

Walking to the podium with Nancy Reagan in the shrine devoted to President Reagan is a passage recently taken by two other Republican superstars who garnered presidential (and then vice presidential) buzz: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

(However, Representative Ryan didn't get the full treatment: Mrs. Reagan stayed at home for health reasons.)

Ryan's speech in Simi Valley, Calif., however, differed from those of Governor Christie and Senator Rubio in notable ways.

When Rubio and then Christie took the podium in August and September, respectively, some Republicans were pining for both to enter the GOP's presidential primary. Christie even fended off an audience question specifically beseeching him to run.

On Tuesday night, the focus was less on Ryan as an individual than as a part of the Republican team – and he filled his role with relish, taking on President Obama in ways that Rubio and Christie did not. (However, he did demur when asked whether he would be Mitt Romney's vice-presidential pick.)

By Ryan's account, Mr. Obama is a modern-day Jimmy Carter needing a bold Reagan to ride to his rescue. 

"We wonder if we will be the first generation in American history to leave our children with fewer opportunities and a less prosperous nation than the one we inherited," he said.

Ryan's line of attack on Obama differed from Rubio's and Christie's not only in tone but also in substance.

Christie had criticized the president's leadership generally. Rubio dismissed the president as a symptom of a greater problem. Ryan, however, took dead aim at Obama's policies, gliding through the ones the GOP loves to hate: the stimulus package, health-care reform, Wall Street regulation, and the failure to rein in the federal debt.

For someone regarded primarily as a budget wonk with an earnest passion for conservative political philosophy, perhaps that was to be expected.

Ryan wasn't all negative, however. At the core of his speech was his call for Republicans to offer American a concrete plan for the future.

"A bold reform agenda is our moral obligation," Ryan said. "If we make the case effectively and win this November, then we will have the moral authority to enact the kind of fundamental reforms America has not seen since Ronald Reagan’s first year."

While foreign-policy challenges also confronted Mr. Reagan in his first term, Ryan largely ignored America's issues abroad. While Christie had talked loftily of the need for "American exceptionalism" to be "demonstrated, not just asserted," and Rubio had sounded a similar note, Ryan took a different tack. 

For Ryan, foreign affairs were limited to Europe as a potential window on America's future under Obama: "This storm has already hit Europe," Ryan said, "where millions are enduring the painful consequences of empty promises turning into broken promises."

Ryan didn't even allow himself a diversion into reminiscences about Reagan's impact on his political life – as Rubio and Christie had. In fact, he was so down to business that didn't even tell a full Reagan joke. He just repeated the punch line: "There must be a pony in here somewhere!" 

The joke, as Reagan told it, was about a boy so optimistic that, when taken to a room filled to the ceiling with horse manure in an attempt to deflate his spirits, he happily began looking for the pony. Ryan's point was strictly Reagan-esque, and his target was plainly Obama.

"There must be a pony in here somewhere, right? And the good news is, there is," Ryan said. "If you hear me say one thing today, hear this: This will not be our destiny. Americans will never accept this shrunken vision of our future. That’s not who we are."

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