Romney’s Risky Pick
‘Every now and then I’ve been known to make a mistake’. So said Mitt Romney as he placed his arm around his running mate Paul Ryan’s shoulders, a sentiment which few would disagree with, especially after seeing him announce Ryan as ‘the next president of the United States’ mere moments before. Although Romney quickly finished his thought, claiming that the choice of Ryan would not turn out to be another gaffe, those who desire the President’s reelection will be overjoyed, for the selection of Ryan has put the election perfectly on Barack Obama’s terms.
The electoral campaign up until this weekend has not been so much a matter of which of the two candidates is best suited to the role of president, but rather a battle over the framing of the election. The Republican strategy has been to cast the election as a referendum on Obama’s handling of the economy – Romney’s role in this being to step back, not offer much in the way of specific policy, and generally assume the image of ‘not Barack Obama’. The Democrats, on the other hand, have attempted to portray it as a choice between two radically different views for America – Democratic progressivism versus Republican anti-government radicalism. In other words, an ideological battle rather than a referendum on past performance.
This is why Romney’s selection of Ryan is so significant; he is the very embodiment of this Republican anti-government radicalism that the Democrats want to fight against. Ryan is best known for his alternative budget which passed the House of Representatives but failed in the Senate in 2011. The document, even in its latest, most moderate version, is remarkable in its scope, its extremity, and its disregard for both the poor, and for economics. Titled ‘the Path to Prosperity’, it advocates massive tax cuts for the very rich, sweeping cuts to social programmes and the repeal of Obamacare. Ryan would replace Medicare and Medicaid with vouchers and block grants, raise taxes for 95% of the country and uninsure up to 57 million Americans. The Centre on Budget and Policy Priorities labelled the budget a ‘dramatic reverse-Robin-Hood approach’.
Taken together, its proposals would produce the largest redistribution of income from the bottom to the top in modern U.S. history, while increasing poverty and inequality more than any measure in recent times and possibly in the nation’s history.
It is, in short, a budget perfectly in-keeping with his adoration of Ayn Rand.
The budget, while staunchly ideological, is also near-nonsensical. Ryan promises to reduce all discretionary governmental spending to 3.75% of GDP by 2050, while simultaneously raising military spending. Since spending on the military is currently around 4.8%, this is impossible. US military spending has never fallen below 3% of GDP, so even if we take this minimum rate, this leaves less than 0.75% of GDP to spend on health, education, housing, science, highways, railways, the post office, the FBI, the IRS, FEMA, the EPA, the FDA, the ATF, agriculture, the interior, energy, the judicial, presidential and legislative branches of government, and many other vital governmental departments and schemes which, unfortunately, cost money.
The selection of Paul Ryan as running mate therefore forces Romney to forgo the middle ground and abandon his policy-light ‘referendum’ approach to the election, while Obama now has the opponent he has wanted since he started making speeches against the Ryan budget in early 2011.
If the Ryan pick plays so perfectly into Democratic hands, the question obviously arises as to why Romney has chosen him as his VP candidate. Running mates are often chosen to help win over a section of the population, John F. Kennedy’s selection of the more conservative southerner Lyndon Johnson in 1960 being a good example, but Romney’s big electoral problems are with women and nonwhites, and Ryan, unlike Marco Rubio or Kelly Ayotte, helps with neither. If anything the selection of the fiercely anti-abortion Ryan will harm his already poor image with women. Running mates are often also picked to help deliver their state, but Ryan isn’t all that popular in Wisconsin, and less so (due to his budget) in states with a high proportion of seniors, which includes important battlegrounds like Florida. Some observers have suggested Ryan has been picked as a distraction – a controversial figure to take the focus off Romney’s still-unreleased tax returns, but surely there would be better distractions for Romney than shackling himself to this anti-tax radical. Indeed, under the Ryan budget, Romney would pay a rate of 0.82% in taxes – a fact that the Democrats are sure to exploit over the coming months.
With all of this going against him, it appears remarkable that Ryan has been chosen at all, but despite all of the above, the fact remains that Ryan is an extremely skilled politician. While he is undoubtably radical (apparently the most radical VP nominee ever), he hides it expertly behind his image of a ‘courageous, reasonable, modest neighbourhood accountant‘. As John Cassidy wrote, ‘he doesn’t foam at the mouth or get too academic. He doesn’t blather on about Friedrich Hayek or Saul Alinsky’, instead he cloaks his ‘radicalism in unthreatening everyday language’, a factor which helps explain how he has managed to become the poster boy of bipartisan deficit reduction while killing every bipartisan debt agreement which arises.
In fact, while Rob Portman or Bobby Jindal may have been better electoral options, Ryan’s mixture of political skill and popularity with the right-wing of the Republican party actually makes him a perfect vice president for Romney in office. The only problem is that for President Romney to get Ryan as his VP, candidate Romney needs to get elected, on Obama’s terms and carrying what Charles Krauthammer referred to as ‘the most annotated suicide note in history‘ around his neck. Trailing in the polls with little under three months until the election, he will have to stop making those mistakes he referred to if he is to have a chance.