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Paul Ryan: speech was about the personal, not policies

David GrantThe Christian Science Monitor

For the man with the concrete budget plan, the indelible image from Paul Ryan’s prime time address at the Republican National Convention wasn’t about policy.

It was about the Wisconsin congressman’s mom.

“My mom is my role model,” said the man whose Medicare plan was once lampooned by Democrats as pushing grandma off a cliff.

As the crowd roared, Congressman Ryan leaned to his right and wiped a tear from his eye.

It was arguably the most emotional moment during any speech from the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. While the man known for polarizing budget plans was a bit light on details, and some of the specifics he did offer left fact-checkers crying foul, conventions aren’t the moment for deep policy discussions.

The crowd is amped up. The lights are on. Could you imagine launching into a five-point plan about how to fix Medicare or a deep discussion of tax reform with a national TV audience looking on?

This was a chance for Ryan, who polls show is still a political unknown to perhaps a third of the country, to reveal his personal side.

“I was someone who didn’t know a lot about him personally,” said Michael McCormack, a GOP county chairman from Duchess County, N.Y. “It’s important that he brought [his personal side] out.”

Ryan, who previously appeared with his mother, Betty Ryan Douglas, at the conservative retirement community The Villages in Florida, offered a fuller picture of his mother’s struggles after her husband died when Paul Ryan was 16.

“Mom was 50 when my dad died. She got on a bus every weekday for years and rode 40 miles each morning to Madison. She earned a new degree and learned new skills to start her small business. It wasn’t just a new livelihood,” Ryan said. “It was a new life. And it transformed my mom from a widow in grief to a small businesswoman whose happiness wasn’t just in the past. Her work gave her hope. It made our family proud.”

Ryan also teased Romney on their contrasting music choices – the congressman’s music playlist begins with AC/DC and “ends with [Led] Zeppelin,” he said, while “there are the songs on [Obama's] iPod which I’ve heard on the campaign bus and on many hotel elevators.”

Ryan also used a personal anecdote to attempt to inoculate himself against the barrage of Democratic attacks already being leveled against the Romney-Ryan ticket: that it would reshape Medicare in a way abhorrent to future seniors.

“In Congress, when they take out the heavy books and wall charts about Medicare, my thoughts go back to a house on Garfield Street in Janesville,” Ryan said. “My wonderful grandma, Janet, had Alzheimer’s and moved in with Mom and me.

“We had help from Medicare, and it was there, just like it’s there for my mom today. Medicare is a promise, and we will honor it. A Romney-Ryan administration will protect and strengthen Medicare, for my mom’s generation, for my generation, and for my kids and yours,” he concluded.

A few lines earlier, Ryan vowed that “the greatest threat to Medicare is Obamacare, and we’re going to stop it.” That was followed by resounding applause.

As the House Budget Committee Chairman, however, Ryan fostered plans with identical reductions in future Medicare spending in his own budget proposals. That's a reminder that the unveiling of Ryan’s personal story will eventually give away to the election-season policy fight both Republicans and Democrats say they want.