Congressman Paul Ryan's journey from the sandbox to the spotlight

Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin was Mitt Romney's vice presidential running mate two years ago. So is he planning on making a run for the top job himself in two years time? Richard Schlesinger of 48 Hours recently sat Congressman Ryan down for some Questions-and-Answers:

He may or may not like to hear this, but Paul Ryan sure looks, sounds and writes like he's running for president.

He's out with a new book, "The Way Forward," the title could be a campaign slogan.

"The whole purpose of this book is to say, 'I also don't like the direction the country's going,'" Ryan said. "And so the, what leaders ought to do is say, 'Here's how I'd do things differently.'"

It's the story of a small town guy with big ideas, and his journey from the sandbox to the spotlight that begins in his hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin.

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Paul Ryan

"This is a very tight community of people who look out for each other, help each other when they're having a problem," said Ryan.

Ryan, 44, has been in congress for almost eight terms. His upbringing in Janesville has become part of his political story.

In his book he talks about having to grow up quickly after discovering his father dead in the house from a heart attack. Ryan was just 16.

"And sort of at that moment I basically decided that I'm gonna either sink or swim. I'm gonna step it up, be there for my mom, be there for my grandma, and not wallow in self-pity because of, you know, the unexpected death of my dad," said Ryan.

Shortly after that, Ryan won one of his first elections, as junior class president at his high school.

And if that's not all-American enough, he also became prom king. Along the way, he picked up another title - brown-noser. That, he doesn't talk too much about.

"You proud of the brown-noser title,'" said Schlesinger.

"Yeah, doesn't really matter," Ryan.

"Okay. You're a good sport, though," said Schlesinger.

"Yeah, I know," said Ryan.

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Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan campaigning at the Celina Fieldhouse in Celina, Ohio. Oct. 28, 2012
AP/Charles Dharapak

In his time in Congress and as "the Romney running mate," Ryan has become known as a wonk who's at home in the weeds of economic policy.

His perch as chairman of the House Budget Committee has been his stage from which to sound warnings about debts and deficits and the perilous future he sees if both aren't controlled.

"Let's focus on the part of the budget that we depend on so much that is going bankrupt, like these entitlement programs that we've organized our lives around, " said Ryan.

Ryan is frequently blasted for not being specific about what he would cut, and reform.

But in his book, he recounts the fights he's had over the years, over broad ideas like allowing younger people to invest their social security taxes in private, regulated, accounts, and providing seniors with federal money to help them pay for Medicare or a private plan of their choice. What he calls premium support. Many democrats say that's just a way to cut benefits.

He's had few victories, but still he sees progress, especially on his Medicare idea.

"We haven't actually finished it yet, meaning gotten it done to save Medicare," said Ryan.

"But we've normalized this idea from something very controversial to a constructive bipartisan solution. And so, this is how I like moving issues, which is get the conversation started, apply your principles, show a solution, normalize it and then try and get it done," said Ryan.

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Paul Ryan and wife Janna

Ryan may be overestimating the bipartisanship of Medicare reform, but he did become the leading republican voice in the argument over entitlement programs and the deficit.

And he's pointing fingers at the Democrats, naturally, but also at his fellow Republicans.

"What I saw was a party that lost its principles, left its moorings and looked like a hypocritical party. They said that they were for fiscal conservatism, but didn't act like it, didn't do it," said Ryan.

Still, Ryan voted for hundreds of billions of dollars in bailouts for the banking industry and the auto industry, and for a costly Medicare expansion.

"Do you blame yourself in part for some of the problems that you identify?" Schlesinger asked.

"Sure, I think you need to own some of the outcome of these things for sure. I call that defensive voting, because as a legislator, you don't really get to vote for what you want to vote for," Ryan said. "Sometimes, if you vote no, that can make worse things happen."

Ryan has been preaching the gospel of lower debt and deficits since before he was elected to Congress. But he's had a devil of a time convincing critics who say he's being unrealistic and unfair to the poor.

Ryan attracted some more criticism, and some praise for his latest proposal. It's a plan to turn control over the war on poverty, and the money for it, to the states.

"Why do you think states can do a better job of this than the federal government?" asked Schlesinger.

"Oh you-- you think it's working well right now?" laughed Ryan.

"Well, have you ever been to the DMV? Do you think that works pretty well?" asked Schlesinger.

"In some states it does, because states can fix it," said Ryan.

Of course Ryan can't propose anything these days without people wondering if he will run for president.

"Are you running for president?" asked Schlesinger.

"I have no idea," said Ryan.

"Oh come on," said Schlesinger. "See, I've heard your say that."

"I really don't," said Ryan.

"I think you're an honorable man but I don't believe you," said Schlesinger.

"I really don't," said Ryan.

"On this one point, I don't," said Schlesinger.

"I hear you say that but here's the way my mind works. I don't roll out of bed every morning thinking 'gosh, what should I do to become president,' I don't think like that," said Ryan.

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Paul Ryan and wife Janna talking to Richard Schlesinge
CBS

His wife Janna, who got a taste of what a national campaign feels like in 2012, at least seems ready.

"Congressman don't hit me for asking this question, but are you ready to do it again?" Schlesinger asked Janna Ryan.

"She's not gonna answer that," laughed Paul Ryan.

"My kids are ready to do it again," laughed Janna Ryan.

"Do you wanna do it again?" asked Schlesinger.

"I don't know. I don't know. We'll wait and see," said Janna Ryan.

And that is as close as any of the Ryans will get to answering that particular question.

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