Oval Office Thunderdome: Paul Ryan

Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign has been sputtering. Under a relentless attack from the Obama campaign, while holding to a steadfast refusal to define its candidate or his policies, the Romney campaign has had to face up to the fact that without a change in trajectory, they cannot win. Enter Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

There were much safer and more conventional picks for a vice presidential candidate Romney could have made. Senator Rob Portman of Ohio and Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey had been touted as picks that could have helped swing some of the electoral math Romney’s way. Such assessments are questionable, as is any value any vice presidential pick has in increasing vote totals. However, a poor pick for the second slot can have substantial effect in dooming a candidate (see Palin and Eagleton).

The upsides of Portman and Christie are that they are well-liked and uncontroversial. Despite whatever reality may be, there’s not much offensive about either of them that could turn off a decreasingly small pool of undecided voters. Ryan, on the other hand, has a definable, extreme record.

Unlike many other national candidates who spent time in Congress, Ryan has embraced controversial issues and has a voting record which can be praised by one campaign and attacked by another.

Ryan’s signature achievement in Congress is a proposed national budget that slashes government spending, especially in entitlements. It decreases the debt and deficit, but only by projecting unprecedented amounts of tax receipts by claiming that historically low taxes on businesses and the rich would shoot the economy upwards like a rocket. The tax cuts in the Ryan plan fall disproportionately to the rich, to such an extant that it would constitute quite possibly the largest redistribution of income from the lower and middle classes to the upper class in American history. Despite decades of solid historical fact which refutes the effectiveness of regressive taxation, voodoo economics is a centerpiece of the Ryan plan.

As for the entitlements (Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid), under the rubric of reform the Ryan plan would gut these programs, with the eventual aim of dismantling them completely, rolling back amongst the most important social reforms in the nation’s history.

Paul Ryan is the type of conservative that liberals really fear. He seems to find no value in government, and he acknowledges no capacity for it to do good. He is one of those ideologues who seem to regard government as the greatest bastion of human corruption and a hindrance on growth and progress. He finds no contradiction that the hand of responsible governance is all around us in the roads we drive on, the safe workplaces we labor in, the water we drink, the clean air we breathe, the safe food we eat, and the rule of law we live by. It was the blood and sweat of American ingenuity that made this country great, but without marching forward in concert with government, none of it would have been possible.

Most disturbingly, Ryan is an advocate of the quiet conservative belief that every person is responsible in toto for the financial outcomes in their lives. Wealth is solely the result of singular hard work. Poverty is solely the result of moral weakness. There are no societal advantages conferred, and station is no predictor of outcome. There are slots at the top for everyone willing to grab one, and luck plays no role. It perpetuates the myth that all Americans are destined to be rich if we just put in the hours.

It is a view that embraces survival of the fittest, and rejects the idea that cooperation and empathy has served the country to any extant.

Such a stark moral position removes much of the Romney campaign’s ability to define itself as more nuanced or separate from its new number two. To this point in the race, Romney has been running apart from his record as governor of Massachusetts, because it hurt him with conservatives, and recently running from his record at Bain and his personal wealth, because Obama has been successful at painting Romney as ruthless and out of touch with the common man. It does not help things that Romney is a stiff and private man, lacking in warmth and anything but forced charm. He also clearly wants the job in a bad way, and will say anything to get it, something voters tend to pick up on.

All Romney has been left with is being an alternative to Obama, and it has not been enough. So the calculation has been made to hitch the campaign to Paul Ryan; to openly associate itself with the ideological extreme of the Republican Party. At least Romney chose a thinker. Ryan is extreme, and his beliefs are rooted in theory more than practice, but he’s not a nut job. His scariness has everything to do with policy, not ignorant radicalism, which makes Ryan formidable.

Romney is taking a gamble, though. The Obama campaign now has concrete Republican proposals to attack, whereas up to now, Romney’s policy proposals could only be glimpsed through the thickest of fog. There’s nothing murky about Ryan. He can be hammered as the spearhead of efforts to turn back the clock on 80 years of societal progress. Romney and his campaign seem to feel that attaching a real conservative identity to his campaign was the best option. There is little doubt this will rally a Republican base that has never had all that much confidence in their candidate. The flip side of this is now the Obama campaign will see a similar benefit, erasing the worry of liberal and progressive malaise in November. With that in mind, the election will probably become more contentious, but could the net benefit of the Ryan pick be a wash? It’s up to those confounding, exasperating undecided voters. It they don’t know who to vote for by now, they never will.