Romney’s Paul Ryan Paradox

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.


About eugenetgrant

I work as a Public Policy Advisor on Financial Inclusion, Poverty and Welfare, for a disability charity. Prior to that, I worked at the independent think tank Demos. I have written for a variety of online and in print publications, including the Social Policy Association, Progress Online, Disability Now, Labour Uncut, and Touchstone. I am available for articles and comment pieces on disability issues, British politics and current affairs. My email is eugenetgrant at googlemail dot com. Please feel free to get in touch. View all posts by eugenetgrant

2 responses to “Romney’s Paul Ryan Paradox

  • Michael

    I’d say these are some pretty fair conclusions to draw here Eugene. You’re right that Ryan will damage Romney on reproductive rights – in fact toward female independents in general. I agree about how dangerous Ryan really is, though I think the policies of Romney and even Obama would also fall into the category of dangerous.

    I suppose my main bone of contention is about economics, the most important issue right now (and arguably at all times). My reading of the American electorate, and probably the British electorate, is that the majority simply don’t understand it (this probably includes me.) And so, the conclusions of intelligent people like yourself that American voters will necessarily be moved by any revelations of Ryan’s fiscal fallacies, I think are less important than one might think. His budget is what I would call the attempt to institutionalise crisis capitalism which would do incredible harm to an enlarged and still growing section of the American public and I also think that American society simply couldn’t stand up to that level of shock economics and inevitable, accompanying social discord.

    Ryan, for a short time, was the latest candidate of the cable news channels’ “which Republican has enough novelty to take on Obama awards”. But he disappeared, like all the others, until sad old Mitt was left, lacking a party mandate yet with shit loads of money and still running for President…again.

    That, for me, is what will decide things most. Apart from the real economy, people’s lived experience and visceral emotions, it’s the media that sets the tone. If the economy didn’t tank in ’08 and Obama seize his moment (and the media agenda) it’s likely he wouldn’t have been elected (according to polls leading up to that point.)

    These things are to some extent about narrative and momentum, who can capture it, who can run with it. And then, as you say, it comes down to bellweather states like Florida or Ohio (where I am registered to vote) just like marginal constituencies here – thoroughly unrepresentative and with alarming levels of electoral chicanery for a country that claims to be a beacon for democracy everywhere.

    Sadly, I think the political economy of both parties, the media industry and the entire elite stinks and the injustices we see now will continue, whoever gets elected. But you knew I’d say that. For what it’s worth, I think Obama will probably squeak it narrowly. Much smaller majority, even less mandate, even more gridlock and the (economic) depression approaches ever quicker. Happy happy.

  • eugenetgrant

    Thanks a lot for commenting. You make some great points here, and I’d definitely agree with them. You’re right that most people won’t really understand Ryan’s plans – or the contradictions in them – by themselves. But, the argument here is that they won’t have to: Obama and Axelrod will do that for them via campaigning. You can guarantee that all the contradictions and consequences of Ryan’s plans will be magnified, through the media, by Obama’s team. The key thing to say about Ryan and his budget plan is that he is now a walking campaign target. Whereas before, Obama was forced to defend his record, now all he really has to do is to attack Ryan’s.

    Finally, I’m going to make a risk of my own here and say that I think Ryan’s selection will have a detrimental, if not fatal, impact on Romney’s campaign, but Obama will not sail through. It will still be close.

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