For Paul Ryan, Election Day as the Republican Party's vice presidential candidate had begun with bright promise. The polls were looking good, he said. A tight national race was expected.
But as the results came in, as President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden began to roll through the battlegrounds, the outcome was becoming clear. So Ryan, his wife and three children made their way to the Boston hotel where GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his family were watching returns.
"We were with the Romneys when we knew it was over," Ryan said in a telephone interview Monday with the Journal Sentinel.
And what was the mood like in the hotel suite?
"Pretty sad," Ryan said. "And our comments more or less revolved around our concern for the country."
It was an unusual Election Day for Ryan, his first loss. He said losing was "a foreign experience. It's tough to describe it."
The 42-year-old Janesville, Wis., native did keep his congressional seat. Yet he won re-election by his smallest margin, just 11.5 points, over Democrat Rob Zerban. And Ryan couldn't deliver Wisconsin for Romney.
Despite the national defeat, Ryan said he and his wife, Janna, "benefited from the experience" of being on a national ticket.
"I know some people have come away with different conclusions on these experiences," he said. "This is a very net-positive experience for us."
Amid high hopes and high energy, Ryan was named to the ticket Aug. 11 in Norfolk, Va., with the USS Wisconsin serving as an imposing backdrop. During the campaign, Democrats criticized Ryan for his budget plan as well as his proposal to turn Medicare into a voucherlike system.
The Republican base, though, was enthralled by him, many viewing Ryan as representing the future of the party. Born in 1970, Ryan was the first Generation X politician to be part of a national ticket. And he turned out to be a tireless campaigner, working especially hard in the battleground states of the upper Midwest.
"The Romneys treated us like family members," Ryan said. "They accepted my family and our staff in a great way. We gave the country specific ideas and solutions, a different vision. And that's the kind of race we wanted to run. We're pleased with the race we ran. It didn't work out the way we wanted it to."
Ryan said Obama "won fair and square," and "we congratulated him for that win."
Asked if the voters rejected the Republican vision, Ryan said of the president: "Well, he got turnout. The president should get credit for achieving record-breaking turnout numbers from urban areas for the most part, and that did win the election for him.
"It's clear we have a country that is divided among a number of issues. We thought that the best thing for the country is to get ahead of our fiscal problems. We offered specific solutions. It didn't go our way. So obviously we're disappointed by that. We're not going to be able to fix this country's fiscal problems along the way I thought we should have. Whether people intended it or not, we've got divided government."
Ryan said "divided government didn't work in the past two years. We're going to have to find a way to make it work in the next two years because these fiscal issues are getting worse, not better, because of time.
"I guess the shock that we felt that evening, a shock to where the country is headed. I'm very worried about our economy. I'm extremely worried about our debt. I'm worried about the state of our health care system and our military."
Ryan said he's ready to get back to work in Congress. And there is plenty of work to be done as the country faces the "fiscal cliff" over the federal budget. Ryan is the chair of the House Budget Committee, a key player who authored the Republicans' budget blueprint.
"I do want to be part of the solution," he said.
Ryan said he and others "want to make sure that we fix this in a way that doesn't hurt the economy. We've put out ideas. The House Republicans have put out specific solutions. The president and the Senate have yet to do that. In order to get things done, in order to reach common ground, both sides need to put out, not just rhetoric, but specific ideas on the table. Then you negotiate. We're hopeful that the president will begin to show some leadership on this and some other issues so that we can begin to get common ground."
Asked if increased revenue could be part of the solution to the deficit, Ryan said, "Yes, you can increase revenues without having to raise tax rates. Our fear is that if you raise tax rates, you hurt economic growth. You hurt small businesses. So through tax reform, you can get higher revenues without damaging the economy. We think that's the better way to go."
Already, there is talk of what steps the Republican Party may have to take to reclaim the White House four years from now. And Ryan's name is prominently mentioned as a potential presidential contender.
"Oh, 2016, let's not talk about that stuff," he said. "That's four years away. I think we're all tired of presidential politics at this time."
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