The effort to define Paul Ryan is in full swing. While most political observers are well aware of Ryan's record, prior to his VP selection fully 43% of Americans reported having never heard of him. So how should we define Paul Ryan? Nate Silver of the New York Times reports that Ryan is the most ideologically extreme vice presidential candidate since at least the 1900s. Silver uses Keith Poole’s NOMINATE scores to draw this conclusion. Ryan has a NOMINATE score of 0.805 while the average Republican in the 111th Congress has a score of 0.62 (a standard deviation is 0.16, so Ryan is over a standard deviation more conservative than his colleagues). Eric Schickler—a political scientist at UC Berkeley—is skeptical . He notes, rightly in my view, that the scores used by Silver lack validity over long historical periods (specifically, the scaling procedure consists of different issues in the pre-New deal, pre-Civil Rights era). However, Schickler goes on to note that Ryan is indeed a very conservative Republican.
Ryan has been the classic “half a loaf” type of conservative. Time and again, he has shown that he is willing to compromise and take far less than he had originally sought... You won’t find Ryan on the short end of any 434-to-1 votes.
According to the National Journal, Ryan works with Democrats about as often as any Republican does.
Unlike Silver and Schickler, Tanner’s conclusion rests on a limited set of anecdotes rather than a systematic examination of Ryan’s legislative record.
There are a couple ways to evaluate these claims on a more scientific footing. On the one hand, we can simply look at Paul Ryan’s party unity score. These scores are calculated as the percentage of votes on which a member sided with his or her party where 50% of Republicans voted against 50% of Democrats (the data are available here). Over his career in the House, Paul Ryan voted with Republicans 94.5% of the time on contentious votes. The median for House Republicans 94.3%. So in this case, Ryan is right at the median (unlike his NOMINATE score). But this deserves an obvious qualification: voting with your party on contentious votes 94.5% of the time is hardly evidence of “pragmatism.” I suppose it is true that Ryan “works with Democrats about as often as any Republican does.” But that’s the same as saying Ryan hardly ever works with Democrats. More on that in a moment.
The chart below reveals Ryan’s party unity score (blue line) per-Congress over his career in the House (the red line is the median Republican). Once again, Ryan seems to mirror the general trend for Republicans in the House. For example, though Ryan voted with Republicans on contentious issues 97.7% of the time, the median in the 111th Congress was 96.4%. This is higher than the typical Republican, but not remarkably so. Thus, if Ryan is a “pragmatist,” which seems like a major stretch, this label is probably more befitting his early career.
We get a similar picture of Ryan if we look at the bills he sponsored. (This data are only available up to the 110th Congress, which is an important caveat). What I did was calculate the percentage of Republicans who cosponsored Ryan's bills (the data are available on James Fowler’s website here). I used all bills as well as all bills where Ryan was in the majority. I restricted the sample to only bills with at least 10 cosponsors. The red line represents Ryan’s position. We see, again, that Ryan falls somewhere toward the middle rather than the extremes. For all bills Ryan attracted 72% Republican cosponsors while for bills where Ryan was in the majority the percentage of Republican cosponsors drops to 69%. Again, yes, Ryan is more like a “typical” Republican. But when only 30% of your cosponsors are from the other party this is hardly pragmatism.
Two important caveats about the co-sponsorship data. First, the time span ends at the close of the 110th Congress. I suspect that much of what Ryan has done that deserves the label “ideologue” occured in the most recent Congresses. Indeed, the time series above suggests that Ryan became more ideologically extreme in the most recent years. For example, his budget proposal, which has no cosponsors, passed with 0 Democratic votes and 4 Republicans no votes. Moreover, much has been made of the fact that Ryan co-sponsored a bill with Todd Akin. Second, I tried to further restrict the sample to only bills mentioned in CQ Almanac (as a measure of “importance”). The data are available on the Policy Agenda’s Project webpage. The cosponsor charts above almost certainly make Ryan appear more moderate than reality since some (perhaps many) of the bills are of little importance. The key here is that—to my surprise—Ryan sponsored no important bills over his time in Congress (using this particular measure, and only up to the 2008). Moreover, of his sponsored bills, only 2 were enacted into law (one modified the taxes paid on hunting arrows, Ryan is an avid bowhunter, and the other renamed a post office).
So in short, Ryan is a “typical” Republican in terms of his party unity score and cosponsorship network, and admittedly the figures above paint Ryan a less extreme light than his NOMINATE score does, but this is hardly evidence that he’s a “pragmatist” who “works with Democrats.” He still votes with his party nearly 98% of the time and his sponsored bills attracted only 30% of Democratic cosponsors (and this number is surely inflated by non-contentious bills). So this campaign of late to make Paul Ryan seem like a moderate, bipartisan guy who works with Democrats is just wrong. The claim that Ryan "works with Democrats about as often as any Republican" is technically true, but very misleading. But the important point is that the problem isn't Paul Ryan, the problem is that the two parties (especially Republicans in the House) are so highly polarized that the average Democrat and Republican hardly ever works with his or her rivals. Being "typical" in a polarized Congress does not make one a moderate.