Alex Massie: Paul Ryan is a courageous choice for Mitt Romney
MITT Romney was not spoiled for options for a presidential running mate but the man he was left with at least ties him to grassroots Republicans, writes Alex Massie
IF Mitt Romney truly believes he’s likely to defeat Barack Obama in the American presidential election this November, it is unlikely he would have asked Paul Ryan to be his running-mate. Nevertheless, any survey of the field of plausible candidates reveals that Romney was not burdened with a surfeit of attractive choices.
Romney could have picked a bland Midwesterner such as Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota or Rob Portman, the Senator from Ohio. Neither man would have produced any kind of “wow factor” however. Marco Rubio, the telegenic, Latino Senator from Florida might have made a splash, as might Chris Christie, the tub-thumping governor of New Jersey. But Christie insisted he wasn’t interested in becoming vice-president, while Rubio’s inexperience cast doubt on his readiness to become president.
That left Paul Ryan. The 42-year-old Congressman from Wisconsin is, in certain respects, an improbable choice. No member of the House of Representatives has been elected vice-president since 1932 and no Republican Congressman has been part of a winning ticket since 1908. Ryan, however, has become the de facto leader of the Republican party’s militant wing and thus, by the standards of mere Congressmen, is already a figure of some national renown.
Selecting Ryan, a Catholic policy wonk who has spent 13 years in Washington, has cheered a conservative movement that has not yet quite embraced Romney. The former governor of Massachusetts has a well-earned reputation for pandering to whichever audience he happens to be addressing and his commitment to conservative orthodoxy – as opposed to managerial expediency – is a matter of justifiable doubt. Picking Ryan – the closest thing Congress has to a Tea Party hero – ties him to the party’s grass roots as never before.
In a profile published by the New Yorker last week, Ryan told the magazine that “People like me who are reform-minded ignore the people who say, ‘Just criticize and don’t do anything and let’s win by default.’ That’s ridiculous.” It’s ironic, then, that until now Romney has largely taken just that approach. The theory, ridiculous or not, was that the spluttering American economy would do Romney’s job for him, persuading voters they couldn’t afford another four years of Obama.
As it turns out, it seems that’s not enough. It might get Romney to, perhaps, 240 electoral college votes but he needs 270 to win. Thus far Romney has preferred not to say what he would actually do as president. That changes now and picking Ryan is a signal that the campaign has entered a new phase.
Ryan argues that Obama has hauled the United States to the left. The choice, as viewed through this frame, is between an America true to its roots or an America that drifts ever-closer to the “European” model of, it is said, high-taxes, low productivity and even lower growth. The future of American dynamism and competitiveness is at stake. Or, as Ryan wrote, introducing his budget plan: “Only by taking responsibility for oneself, to the greatest extent possible, can one ever be free, and only a free person can make responsible choices – between right and wrong, saving and spending, giving or taking.”
Ryan’s ascendancy within the Republican party was confirmed when he was chosen to give the official response to the president’s State of the Union address last year. “we have to hold to a couple of simple convictions” he said, “Endless borrowing is not a strategy; spending cuts must come first.”
For this, Ryan has acquired a reputation for “bravery”. More cautious conservatives like the sound of his plans but are wary they are too bold for the electorate to swallow. A devotee of Ayn Rand, Ryan sometimes seems to exemplify HL Mencken’s aphorism that “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong”.
Ryan says voting for Bush-era spending increases made him “miserable”. Collectively, the combination of foreign wars, tax cuts, bank bailouts and a new healthcare benefit for pensioners added some five trillion dollars to the national debt. That put the United States on an unsustainable path to bankruptcy.
Ryan’s much-touted “Plan for Prosperity” is an opening statement, not the final word on how the United States can return to long-term fiscal health. In outline it envisages sweeping cuts to government spending, a simplification of the tax code and a radical overhaul of government-paid benefits. For instance, social security would be partially-privatised and government-spending on healthcare for pensioners replaced, in time, with a voucher system.
These ideas, too bold for Congressional Republicans to endorse just four years ago, have become the party’s new orthodoxy. House Republicans, always more militant than their colleagues in the Senate, have seen the future and agreed it looks like Paul Ryan’s future.
Democrats do not object to this. The Obama campaign planned to run against Ryan’s alternative budget anyway. Romney’s decision to select Ryan just makes the divide between the parties even starker. Individually, many of Ryan’s proposals frighten many voters. The GOP is gambling that collectively, they will persuade the electorate only Republicans are “serious” about the US’s long-term future.
If Ryan’s presence on the ticket helps enthuse the conservative base without alienating moderate voters then he will have done Romney some service. Nonetheless, with the exception of Lyndon Johnson in 1960 it is difficult to think of a vice-presidential selection that made a material difference to the campaign. Sarah Palin proved a terrible choice but John McCain was on track to lose the 2008 election before he gambled on “Sarah Barracuda” and it’s hard to imagine how he could have won had he been able to choose his preferred running-mate, Joe Lieberman.
Despite frequent appearances to the contrary, voters are not stupid. The American people are not going to rush to Romney because he’s chosen Paul Ryan, just as Barack Obama did not win the 2008 election because he had Joe Biden on his ticket.
Even so, the vice-presidency is worth rather more than a “bucket of warm spit” these days. Al Gore and, especially, Dick Cheney showed how a vice-president could have real influence on policy. This is where Ryan’s presence on the ticket becomes interesting. If Romney wins the election, his vice-president’s ideas will surely have considerable influence upon the budgets Romney submits for Congressional approval. It is not difficult to imagine Ryan heading a vice-presidential commission on entitlement reform, for instance. Moreover, Ryan’s experience on Capitol Hill would help ensure smooth relations between the White House and Republicans in Congress. Indeed, some Republicans like to dream that Romney might be a mere figurehead president with Ryan the real power behind the throne.
That’s improbable but selecting Ryan is Romney’s boldest move yet and notable precisely because the candidate is, by inclination, a cautious general. Romney’s gamble is a worthwhile one since, as matters stand, Obama remains favourite to win. Selecting Ryan, however, clarifies the choice facing American voters in November and for this, if nothing else, Romney deserves some praise for his own modest act of bravery.
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