Paul Ryan's speech after he was named as Mitt Romney's Vice Presidential running mate
Last Saturday, Mitt Romney announced that Paul Ryan, a congressman from Wisconsin, would be his running mate for the 2012 Presidential election. Rep. Ryan, Chair of the House Budget Committee, is a committed fiscal conservative. As he is a darling of the Tea Party and the personification of all that is evil in Republican politics for progressives, Romney's choice has energised a campaign that was in danger of descending into a mundane commentary on the current economic health of the US.
With his pick, Romney has extended the issues at stake for voters who are concerned with the present unemployment rate or the threat of another recession to the future of the Federal Government's role in economic and social policy. This is now the election for which conservatives have been praying for decades: a referendum on their belief in a Constitutionally-limited government, allowing individuals to exercise their God-given rights without interference from the hands of the State.
That might sound overblown, but not if you analyse the history of conservatism in the US as an ideological force, rather than as the criticism that Republicans are nothing more than the party of Big Business. As Ryan emphasised in his acceptance speech Saturday:
America is more than just a place…it’s an idea. It’s the only country founded on an idea. Our rights come from nature and God, not government. We promise equal opportunity, not equal outcomes.
This idea is founded on the principles of liberty, freedom, free enterprise, self-determination and government by consent of the governed.
Compare this to the mission statement in the first issue of William F. Buckley's conservative National Reviewin 1955:
It is the job of centralized government (in peacetime) to protect its citizens’ lives, liberty and property. All other activities of government tend to diminish freedom and hamper progress. The growth of government(the dominant social feature of this century) must be fought relentlessly.
Ryan's adherence to Buckley's conservative orthodoxy is the factor that has transformed this election. Romney might remain the candidate who becomes President, but for the next three months the battleground will be Ryan's ideology of individual responsibility against the "everyone pays a fair share" vision of President Obama and his Democratic Party. A majority of Americans will listen to the argument that that the Federal Government is too large, and that makes Rep. Ryan a serious danger for President Obama's chances of re-election. Above all of his colleagues to the right of the Republican Party, he can explain and defend his ideas in ways that resonate with voters who listen with an open mind.
But naming Paul Ryan as his running mate also brings problems for Romney. It might have enthused the base of the Republican Party that was less than enamoured with Mitt, but it will also fire up the Democratic Party. They will seek to neutralise the impact of Ryan's selection by attacking his pro-life voting record and his plans to turn Medicare into a voucher system.
For the next few weeks those offensives by Democrats on Ryan's policy record will dominate the media headlines. It is far too early to know whether that will help or damage Romney in his quest to become President, and only time will tell which of Ryan's policy ideas will make or break conservative hopes in November. However, amid the debate, Paul Ryan has brought this intangible to the Romney candidacy: he adds an aura of competency and personality to the Romney-Ryan ticket that Romney by himself sorely lacked.
This interpretation of Ryan as possessing an intellectual seriousness that could revitalise the Romney campaign has already been lambasted in the liberal media, and in parts of the mainstream media as well. The Daily Beast pooh-poohed the idea as “wishful thinking,” with Peter J. Boyer beginning with the observation: that;
Mitt Romney finally found a way to fire up the base—the other guy’s base. One needn’t venture beyond these pages to encounter gleeful liberal depictions of Romney’s new running mate, Paul Ryan, as an unhinged Randian plutocrat whose plans to kill Medicare (among other mustache-twirling villainies) will make him a "juicy target" for Obama and the Democrats this fall.
Matt Miller, a Clinton Administration aide, claimed in The Washington Post, “I can tell you [Ryan] is not a fiscal conservative, not a truth-teller on America’s fiscal challenges, and not a man with a plausible plan to renew the country.”
Miller and Boyer may be correct. But the challenge for President Obama now is to puncture the hype around Ryan's credibility --- not in Washington, or in the liberal media, but in the communities of America where a call for limited government and individual responsibility still receives a warm welcome response.
It is in those communities that conservatives believe that the founding principle of their philosophy --- ideas have consequences --- still resound. As Charles Krauthammer puts it bluntly, “Ideas matter,” with Romney's chief chance for election lying in an “appeal to a center-right country with twice as many conservatives as liberals.”
On 31 March 2010 in Oklahoma City, shortly after the passage of the health care reform act, Ryan delivered a speech, "Should America Bid Farewell to Exceptional Freedom?", in which he warned of the electoral battles ahead for Republicans, and declared:
We are challenged to answer again the momentous questions our Founders raised when they launched mankind's noblest experiment in human freedom. They made a fundamental choice and changed history for the better. Now it's our high calling to make that choice: between managed scarcity, or solid growth ... between living in dependency on government handouts, or taking responsibility for our lives ... between confiscating the earnings of some and spreading them around, or securing everyone's right to the rewards of their work...between bureaucratic central government, or self-government...between the European social welfare state or the American idea of free market democracy.
Those are the ideas that matter for conservatives, the rhetoric they want to dominate the electoral discourse, and in Paul Ryan they have a Vice Presidential candidate who can proclaim those ideals without the suspicion of self-interest that dogs similar attempts by Mitt Romney.
According to the polls, half of America did not know who Paul Ryan was before Mitt Romney made his announcement on Saturday. How those Americans react to the equal parts of euphoria and disdain that have greeted Ryan's selection, with their perceptions of his philosophy of individual responsibility, could be pivotal point in this close contest.