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Romney Picks Ryan

August 11, 2012

Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, now officially Mitt Romney’s vice presidential running mate, is primarily known for his dramatic proposals to cut back, transform, or altogether eliminate the premier federal social programs of the last 80 years.

Ryan is a dynamic young conservative – just 42 years old, nine years younger than President Obama and a full generation younger than Mitt Romney.  After he graduated from college, Ryan worked ever so briefly as a marketing consultant with his family’s construction business, then began his political career as a staff economist in the office of Wisconsin Senator Bob Kasten.

Ryan bounced rather unnotably around the back halls of Washington until 1998, when he ran successfully for Congress, taking his seat just before his 29th birthday.  He’s been in the House ever since.

Mitt Romney, like all presidential candidates before him, has said that his vice presidential selection must above all else be qualified to assume the presidency on a moment’s notice.  Unlike other presidential candidates, Romney has said that a president ought to have three years’ experience “working in business”  – a credential that Ryan lacks.  No matter, a whole bunch of successful presidents lacked that credential, at least as far back as Abe Lincoln.  And some of our worst presidents had spent plenty of time “working in business,” among them Ulysses Grant and George W. Bush.

Today, Ryan is known primarily for his leadership among conservatives on issues related to federal taxation and social programs.  He authored a series of documents called “A Roadmap for America’s Future,” which included a comprehensive alternative to President Obama’s budget for fiscal year 2010, and similar documents for 2011 and 2012.

The hallmarks of these plans include across-the-board income tax cuts; elimination of federal taxes on capital gains, dividends and interest; abolition of corporate income taxes and the alternative minimum tax; elimination of Medicare in favor of a federal voucher program; partial privatization of Social Security; and large but unspecified cuts in discretionary spending.

Although Ryan claims that his plan would produce a balanced budget, Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman maintains that Ryan’s plan would result in $4 trillion in budget deficits over ten years – a contention that has apparently never been refuted.   Aside from liberal criticism, Ryan’s plan has been criticized by Roman Catholic institutions for seeking to “abandon the poor.”  But his plan has also been criticized by some conservatives for not going far enough.

In 2005, Ryan boasted to a meeting of the Atlas Society that his inspiration for entering politics had been Ayn Rand and her “objectivist” philosophy.  Objectivism holds that a person’s moral duty is to singlemindedly pursue his or her own happiness, and that laissez-faire capitalism is the only system that permits the fulfillment of that moral duty.  But in 2012, Ryan disavowed objectivism, professing instead to be a follower of Thomas Aquinas.  (In fairness, let us acknowledge the rare national Republican who knows enough about philosophers to talk intelligently about whether he agrees or disagrees with their philosophies.)

In 2002, Ryan voted in favor of George W. Bush’s Iraq war authorization.  In 2003, he voted for Bush’s unfunded Medicare expansion.  In 2008, he supported the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), the Wall Street bailout, and the auto industry bailout.

But since 2008, Ryan has been a determined anti-Obama leader.  Not two months after the stimulus bill was passed, Ryan introduced a bill to repeal it.

Politically, it’s hard to see Romney’s selection of Ryan as a game-changer.  Ryan’s near-iconic status on the hard right will no doubt help Romney with his base, which is a prerequisite for general election success that most presidential candidates have long since achieved by this point in the race.

Among the general electorate, Ryan is reasonably well known for a vice presidential designee, and he is best known for positions regarded even by independents as harsh and unrealistic.  Hard-line conservatives did Romney no favors by making a public push for Ryan this week; Ryan’s selection will be perceived by many as Romney caving in, doing his masters’ bidding, rather than exercising any kind of bold leadership.

It’s not even likely that Ryan will help much in his home state of Wisconsin.  Ryan is presumably best known in his home state, and polarized Wisconsinites’ opinions on Ryan aren’t likely to vary much from their opinions on Romney.

Ryan’s selection will serve to sharpen the differences in the public mind between mainstream Democrats and mainstream Republicans.  Ryan stands for expanded military spending, slashing and burning domestic programs that aid the middle class and poor and retired people, and he reinforces Romney’s problematic image as someone who favors the well off at the expense of ordinary folks.

Ryan has no particular appeal to Democratic constituencies, and, I think, limited appeal to the shrinking middle.  There is a boldness and a daring to his proposals, and a youthful energy to his personality, that ought to give Romney the customary vice presidential selection bounce.  But Ryan’s positions will suffer from close scrutiny, both for the fuzziness of his math and for his cold indifference to real people.  Then youth may quickly transform from energetic to inexperienced.

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