Of America, New York Times journalist Brooks Atkinson once said: “This nation was built by men who took risks – pioneers who were not afraid of the wilderness, businessmen who were not afraid of failure, scientists who were not afraid of the truth, thinkers who were not afraid of progress, dreamers who were not afraid of action.” Earlier this month, Mitt Romney – the Republican Presidential candidate – took to the stage in Norfolk, Virginia, to announce his much anticipated running-mate: 42 year-old Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan. As a man who made his millions in venture capital, Romney will be no stranger to risk. Selecting Ryan is exactly that.
Paul Ryan grew up in Wisconsin. His family, descended from Irish-Americans, owns a large construction firm, Ryan Inc., which could explain why construction groups were among his key financial backers at the start of a career spent almost entirely in politics. A fitness fanatic, Ryan is known for his morning workouts, his penchant for hunting deer and his alleged ability to catch fish with his bare hands (Putin, who?). Following the unexpected death of his father (Ryan found him in his bed after he had suffered a heart attack in the night), the young would-be Congressman developed a voracious appetite for books – including Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and, most notably, Ayn Rand, whom Ryan credits as “the reason I got involved in public service”.
He was elected in 1998, aged just 28 and rocketed through Washington’s ranks. Ten years later, now the top Republican on the Budget Committee, Ryan set out his ‘Roadmap to America’s Future’ as an alternative to Obama’s spending plans.
Already, the addition of Ryan has dynamically altered Romney’s campaign. Unlike previous Vice Presidents who saw out their terms in office in relative obscurity, should Romney win in November 2012, Ryan and ‘Ryan’s plan’ – which Romney described as ‘bold and exciting’ – will be extremely influential. That is, of course, assuming Romney does win. His choice of Ryan as a running mate puts him in a paradoxical position: in the short-term, it will boost his chance of becoming president; in the long-term, it could also kill it completely. For better or worse, Ryan’s selection is a game-changer.
Before August 11th, when Romney selected Ryan, the election was a referendum on Barack Obama. It must be admitted that Obama has been deeply disappointing to many at home and abroad. Given the impossible height of expectations following his election, he was always going to fall short. Much of his foreign policy – especially his reliance on extrajudicial assassinations for which he personally selects the targets – is disturbing. Nevertheless, as columnist Michael White points out, the campaign slogan “General Motors is still alive and Osama Bin Laden is dead” will resonate strongly with many in the US. The man remains a master orator, even if this novelty has worn off, and looks equally at home buying a round of beers at a bar as he does making the State Of The Union.
Mitt Romney, try as he might, does not exude the same charisma. For a man seeking perhaps the most powerful office in the world, he is staggeringly gaffe-prone. Highlights include: telling voters he “likes to be able to fire people” (this will not have gone down well when unemployment is over 8%); touting the number of cars he and his wife owns, including two luxury Cadillac cars, to a crowd in Michigan, the home of US car industry, after he opposed the bailout of the automobile industry; insulting the hosts of the 2012 Olympics, the UK, when he doubted London’s capability to host a successful Games. He even introduced Ryan as “the next President of the United States” – forgetting this is the very job for which he himself is running.
More seriously, Romney’s selection of Ryan highlights a real chink in his own armour: fears over his lack of appeal to far-right conservatives. Here, there are echoes of 2008, when the Republican candidate John McCain selected Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin – a highly polarizing figure – to be his running mate, in a move that helped cost him the election. Ryan is no Palin. For one, he is more experienced and clearly more intelligent. He brings with him a rich network of relationships with conservative think thanks and media outlets outside of Washington. But, while his presence on the ticket has enthused far-right members of the GOP, he too is a controversial and polarizing figure in his own right.
In May, Romney was polling well with women – a few points above Obama – but his appeal to female voters could be greatly damaged by Ryan, who is alleged to have 100% pro-life voting record and opposes abortion even in cases of rape or incest. He co-sponsored a Bill that states the life of each human being begins at fertilization, which would render certain forms of contraception like IUDs and IVF procedures (which have been relied upon by at least three of Romney’s sons) murder. He co-sponsored the Ultrasound Informed Consent Act, which contains the provision that nothing in the law “will prevent a pregnant woman from turning her eyes away from the ultrasound images”. “What we cannot do”, remarked Amy Goodman, investigative journalist and host of Democracy Now! Radio show, “is turn our eyes away from just how radical Paul Ryan’s plans are for more than half the US population”.
The potential impact of Ryan’s policies on women will surely be seriously scrutinised over the coming months. More attention will be paid, however, to his fiscal plans – his Roadmap. Inspired by Rand’s magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, Ryan is a true deficit hawk. The New Yorker describes his budget as “a comprehensive plan to reduce the welfare state and radically curtail the Government’s role in protecting citizens from life’s misfortunes.” He has proposed ending Medicare, a government health insurance scheme for older people, and replacing it with direct payments for people who could buy private insurance. He has suggested abolishing Medicaid, the healthcare programme for people who are poor, and instead giving state authorities this money to use as they see fit. He would like to end tax breaks for employers who provide health insurance and cut spending on food stamps. As writer James Surowieki points out, Ryan’s budget plan is essentially a statement that “there’s very little the federal government has done over the past hundred and fifty years, apart from fighting wars, that the House Republicans approve of”. Perhaps the most devastating critique comes from those, like the Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman, who point out that – even after eviscerating the welfare state – Ryan’s proposals would actually increase the US deficit…by about $2.6 trillion.
Before his selection, the election was to be referendum not just on Obama’s record but also the state of the US economy, which continues to struggle. With Romney’s selection of Ryan this will now change completely. Obama’s team will set out to savage Ryan’s budget plans and draw their draconian consequences to voters’ attention. It is no longer about assessing what Obama has done; it is about analyzing what Ryan would do. Ryan’s own record will quickly unravel. While he now advocates an extreme slash-and-burn budget, during the Bush years Ryan was a reliable voter on policies that increased the national debt. Just days after being selected as Romney’s running-mate, Ryan admitted that he had lobbied the Government for millions of dollars from Obama’s stimulus package – after twice denying that he had done so. These contradictions will be key pressure points on Romney’s campaign.
Having selected Ryan, Romney may well be enjoying a boost in support from The Tea Party, but he faces a messy dilemma: does he accept Ryan’s plans and the consequences they will have for federal spending – not to mention millions of low-income and older Americans (it is worth noting that the two states with the highest ratio of people on Medicare – Florida and Ohio – are key swing states); or will he distance himself from them and invite accusations of a poisonous fracture. Selecting Ryan was a risk – a huge one. Contrary to Atkinson, it is a risk that will eventually ensure that Romney does not play a part in building America – at least, as President.