On Oct. 24, 2012, Paul Ryan slipped into a high-ceilinged backstage room at the Waetjen Auditorium on the campus of Cleveland State University with a small gaggle of advisers and secret service agents. No reporters.
Ryan was there for a meeting that the Romney campaign brain trust had seemed, for months, intent on stopping. Since joining the presidential ticket in August, the Wisconsin congressman had been lobbying to spend more time campaigning in diverse, low-income neighborhoods. Ryan, a protégé of the late, big-tent GOP visionary Jack Kemp, argued the visits would show the country that Republicans cared about the poor. The number-crunchers in Boston countered that every hour spent on inner-city photo ops was a lost opportunity to rally middle-class suburbanites who might actually vote for them. Eventually, they reached a compromise: Ryan could give one big speech about poverty in Ohio and hold an off-the-record roundtable with community leaders who work with the poor — but the campaign would have to vet them all.
To help organize the event, Ryan enlisted the help of Bob Woodson, a 75-year-old civil rights leader and conservative community organizer. Woodson went to work compiling a list of black ministers, homeless shelter volunteers, and halfway house managers he thought Ryan should meet. Most of them, Woodson later acknowledged with some pride, were "ex-something: ex-drug addicts, ex-alcoholics, ex-convicts."
When the list was turned over to the Romney campaign for approval, "it was like the machines exploded," a Ryan aide recalled. "There were so many red flags — guys that had multiple felonies in their background. And they kept coming back and picking out names, saying, 'Absolutely not, we cannot have this person.'" At one point, Woodson grew frustrated with Team Romney's meddling. "Do you guys know anything about poverty?" he demanded of an operative. "This is where these guys come from! They are working with the poor because they had hit rock bottom."
By the time Ryan arrived backstage at the Waetjen Auditorium less than two weeks before the election, about a dozen advocates for the poor were waiting for him. They took turns telling stories from the front lines of the losing war on poverty. They spoke of their own experiences with addiction and homelessness. They testified of redemption. And then, as Ryan prepared to leave to deliver his speech, a tattooed minister who had arrived at the meeting via motorcycle asked the congressman if he could lay hands on him to pray.
Ryan looked momentarily panicked, according to some who were in the room, but then he shrugged and smiled. "I'm Catholic, but I'm cool with that," he responded.
Secret Service agents tensed up as the group surrounded him and the man placed his hands on Ryan's shoulders — inches away from his neck, a nervous aide noted later. The candidate made the sign of the cross, and the minister called on the power of God to give Ryan strength, and help him fulfill his divine mission. Several people present, including Ryan, became emotional.
Ryan left the meeting, gave his speech, lost the election, and returned home to Wisconsin. But several weeks later, he couldn't stop thinking about that prayer. Speaking with a close aide, he said it was the most powerful experience he'd had during the campaign — and that he felt strongly he needed to act on it.
"This is my next 'Roadmap,'" Ryan told the aide, referring to the name of the audacious conservative budget that had made him a star in Washington. "I want to figure out a way for conservatives to come up with solutions to poverty. I have to do this."
Until recently, Paul Ryan would have seemed like an improbable pick to lead the restoration of compassionate conservatism with a heartfelt mission to the poor. Of all the caricatures he has inspired — from heroic budget warrior to black-hearted Scrooge — "champion of the poor" has never been among them. And yet, Ryan has spent the past year quietly touring impoverished communities across the country with Woodson, while his staff digs through center-right think tank papers in search of conservative policy proposals aimed at aiding the poor. Next spring, Ryan plans to introduce a new battle plan for the war on poverty — one he hopes will launch a renewed national debate on the issue.
Skeptics will say the founding myth behind Ryan's new outreach sounds a little too pat, that "seeing the light" was really just a savvy move in a self-interested rebranding effort. And more substantively, many on the left scoff at the notion that a small-government crusader who has made his name calling for deep cuts to the traditional social safety net can really help the poor. When the Washington Post ran a favorable profile last month outlining Ryan's new focus, the liberal writer Alex Pareene snarked, "Wow, is it 'Paul Ryan is a serious, brilliant, policy-focused wonk with a dynamic and inclusive vision for the future of the Republican Party' season again already? It comes earlier every year."
But those closest to him say Ryan's new mission is the result of a genuine spiritual epiphany — sparked, in part, by the prayer in Cleveland, and sustained by the emergence of a new pope who has lit the world on fire with bold indictments of the "culture of prosperity" and a challenge to reach out the weak and disadvantaged.
"What I love about the pope is he is triggering the exact kind of dialogue we ought to be having," Ryan told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel this week, adding, "People need to get involved in their communities to make a difference, to fix problems soul to soul."
Ryan isn't the only Republican taking lessons from the leader of the Roman Catholic Church. Even as Pope Francis' pronouncements have drawn the ire of the Rush Limbaugh crowd, many in the GOP have watched in awe as the pontiff has taken an aging institution drowning in dogma and at risk of irrelevancy, and revitalized its image by lowering his voice and carrying out a few well-chosen symbolic gestures. Republicans are looking for their own Pope Francis — and many believe Ryan should be the one to take on that mantle.
This is still the same congressman who said in 2005 that the thinker who most inspired him to enter public service was the libertarian intellectual Ayn Rand — a comment liberals have seized on for years to cast him as an Atlas Shrugged cultist.
But Peter Flaherty, a devout Catholic and former Romney adviser who became close with the congressman during the campaign, said Ryan's worldview has always been firmly rooted in Catholic teachings about the poor.
"Paul is someone who is very cognizant of the social magisterium of the Catholic Church... which encompasses everything from how we care for our neighbors to the idea that there's hope and purpose and goodness in every human life," said Flaherty, who recalled slipping away from the Republican convention in 2012 to attend mass with Ryan. "It also includes the ongoing duty of the strong to protect the weak — which I know drives Paul and his effort to help lift people out of poverty."
Like many conservative Catholics, Ryan uses the doctrine of subsidiarity — which favors individual freedom and local governance over the power of large, central authorities — to reconcile his concern for the poor with his general suspicion of federal welfare programs. In this, Ryan has found inspiration in the teachings of Pope Francis, who said in 2009, "We cannot respond with truth to the challenge of eradicating exclusion and poverty if the poor continue to be objects, targets of the action of the state and other organizations in a paternalistic and aid-based sense, instead of subjects, where the state and society create social conditions that promote and safeguard their rights and allow them to be builders of their own destiny."
Ryan echoed the sentiment in a commencement speech in May, putting the message in more distinctly Republican terms. "Concern for the poor doesn't demand faith in big government," Ryan told the graduates of Benedictine College. "It demands something more from all of us. If we continue to believe that the war on poverty is primarily a government responsibility, then we will continue to weaken our communities. We will drift further apart as people."
Ryan, whose father died when he was 16, envisions the kind of civil society his family leaned on in the years after his passing — local networks of churches, charities, and concerned neighbors looking out for each other, with the state playing only a supporting role. It's a vision he finds support for in Francis' teachings.
Of course, the pope's withdrawal from the culture wars and rejection of trickle-down economics have rankled many on the right — and Ryan was quick to argue in a local newspaper interview this week that the pope's economic views had likely been colored by Argentina's corrupt form of "crony capitalism." Beyond that mild dispute, though, he has declined to indulge the right-wing radio circuit's war on Pope Francis, even as Limbaugh riles up conservatives by musing that he is a "Marxist."
As Flaherty put it, "My bet is that he's on Pope Francis' team."
While Ryan has seized on the pope's doctrinal teachings as he shapes his anti-poverty agenda, many Republicans who know him say he appears to have been just as influenced by Francis's fairly radical examples of public compassion.
"I think he's probably inspired by a lot of what [Francis] does," said Peter Wehner, a former George W. Bush adviser who has known Ryan for years. "Politicians in general can learn a lot from Pope Francis in terms of how much tone and countenance matter in public perception. He has a huge appeal from the symbols he sends — from washing the feet of Muslim women, to kissing the heads of people with deformities."
"The clothes he wears, the shoes he wears, where he lives," Wehner continued. "This stuff is not unimportant in life, it's not unimportant in faith, and it's not unimportant in politics."
Ryan has deliberately left the cameras behind during his excursions to poor neighborhoods this year in places like Indiana and New Jersey, but the stories of his interactions with the poor somehow find a way of leaking into public view. In one anecdote related by Woodson, for example, Ryan mailed neckties to an entire classroom of teenagers after they admired the one he was wearing during his visit. It would be easy to dismiss such modest acts of kindness as fodder for a future memoir — or stump speech — but Woodson insists Ryan is sincere. "The criminal lifestyle makes you very discerning, and everywhere I've taken Paul, these very discerning people have given me a thumbs up," he said. "You can't lip synch authenticity around people like that."
To Republicans like Flaherty — as well as a growing contingent of conservative opinion-makers who are calling for a more authentically populist Republicanism — Ryan's embrace of the Francis model is heartening.
"What Pope Francis is doing is, instead of changing Catholicism, he's changing the way the world views Catholicism… And I think Paul has the opportunity to do something similar for conservatism," Flaherty said.
But if Ryan is going to reshape popular opinion about the GOP and the poor, he may need to start doing something he almost never does: talk openly about his faith. With the exception of a few laboriously prepared speeches and choreographed campaign moments, Ryan has kept his religious life private. (He declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Jimmy Kemp, the son of Ryan's longtime mentor who was present at the Cleveland meeting last year, said he could tell the congressman was still trying to find his footing as he opened that part of his life up to the world.
"He's not at all uncomfortable with his faith, but it's a new subject for him. He calls himself a policy wonk, and I think that's the stuff he's naturally attracted to. But there's no doubt when he was given this opportunity to open up, he took it," Kemp said.
That may be because Ryan, who made headlines last week for successfully negotiating a bipartisan budget agreement, is beginning to see his priorities shift. Over the course of their year together, Woodson has noticed a change in the congressman who rose to stardom as a budget geek with a passion for spreadsheets. Lately, he said, Ryan seems as though he's relishing the Capitol Hill battles less than he used to.
"He wants to spend less time with budgets, less time arguing in Congress, and he's desperate to spend more time with us," Woodson said. "I think he's tired of it, I think it finds it a little tedious. It's just not how Paul defines who Paul Ryan is anymore."