The latest issue of TIME magazine devotes four pages to U.S. House budget chairman and recent GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan‘s role in the federal fiscal cliff debate. Among the notable excerpts:

If he accepts the tax hikes Democrats demand, he could alienate his longtime fans on the resolutely antitax right. But if he stands firm and takes the party over the fiscal cliff, he could not only damage his qualifications as a problem solver but also start a war within the GOP. In an effort to keep him on board for a deal, Boehner tapped Ryan to be part of the team that is planning the strategy for talks with the White House.

Which way will Ryan go? “I believe, in this budget fight, that you can get to common ground without compromising principles,” he says after his speech practice. But moments later he declares that common ground is possible only “so long as the [tax] rates are not going up.” The White House calls higher tax rates on the wealthy a precondition for a deal, not least because the President campaigned and won on that very issue. Even some conservatives have said Republicans should accept them as inevitable.

If Ryan sounds as if he’s having trouble reconciling himself to his new hybrid role as budget chief and party leader, he is. Rather than moderating his positions after November’s election, he has returned to an earlier, hard-line version of his controversial fiscal plan, including turning the guaranteed benefits of programs like Medicare and Medicaid into limited government checks, and even revisiting big changes to Social Security. That, he believes, is the only way to end the dependency responsible for entrenched poverty in America and save the social safety net from bankruptcy. Election defeat just means those reforms have to be made one step at a time, he says. The fiscal-cliff talks are the first test of whether that post-2012 incremental strategy can fly. So far, it’s not going well.