11 Aug 2012

Mitt Romney picks Ryan as running mate

US presidential candidate Mitt Romney picks Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin congressman, as his running mate for November’s election.

The secret is out: Mitt Romney has chosen his running mate – the news leaking out during the night after heavy rumours and the fact that a new website, www.romneyryan.com had gone live in the early hours of the morning.

From the announcement on the deck of a battleship (the USS Wisconsin, appropriately named after Ryan’s home state), the pair will now begin a four day campaign sweep through key battleground states, the better to sell the new partnership to a largely unaware voting public.

Paul Ryan may be well known to Washington policy wonks, but he is a pretty blank slate for the electorate: a poll by CNN earlier this week found that 38 per cent of those surveyed had never heard of him, while 16 per cent had no opinion one way or the other.

But for both parties, the choice is a bold move which will define the ideological narrative of the election campaign. The reason? One word – Medicare. That’s the government programme which provides health care for the elderly – and the chief target of Paul Ryan’s radical budget plan.

The 42 year old Wisconsin congressman, who has served in the House for 14 years, has many things going for him: he’s young, he’s personable, he connects with voters, he has Irish Catholic, almost blue-collar roots. None of which Mitt Romney exactly has in spades.

Not the best of starts

The introduction of Paul Ryan as Romney's running mate was overshadowed by a gaffe at the unveiling. Mitt announced Paul Ryan as the next 'president' of the United States- rather than vice president. After Ryan's two-minute fanfare entrance, Romney leaves the stage to be told of his mistake. He then returns to the stage and interrupts Ryan's big moment to correct his error, admitting 'every now and then I'm known to make a mistake.'

Radical cuts

The Ryan budget, the ‘Path to Prosperity’ is not simply about sweeping cuts in public spending on almost every discretionary programme, most of them pretty popular: at its core, radical tax cuts, and a move to convert Medicare into a voucher system to halt the spiralling costs of old-age health care.

It is a plan which, according to a timely profile in the New Yorker, thought that his fellow-intellectual Barack Obama might also come round to. It was not to be, as the President rounded on the proposal.

“There’s nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. And I don’t think there’s anything courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don’t have any clout on Capitol Hill.”

Initial reaction from leading Democrats to the Ryan pick has been pretty euphoric: attacking the Ryan budget has reaped substantial electoral benefits already, and states like Florida, with its large population of retirees, could now be easy pickings for the Obama campaign.

Bill Burton, from the Obama supporting Priorities USA group, had this to say: “Vice presidential nominees almost never matter. But if it’s the author of the most anti-middle class budget ever, this one does.”

Political windfall

Another leading campaigner, on Twitter, cheered the potential political windfall: “We’ve just spent 18 months trying to make House races about their plan for Medicare and Mitt Romney just did it for us overnight.”

But essentially what the Ryan candidacy does is define the nature of the campaign. He has devoted years to building himself into the de facto intellectual leader of the GOP: Democrats respect his intelligence, even if they don’t like his ideas.

And by choosing him, Romney has turned the race into a true ideological choice. Obama – who believes in a government which steps in to help those in need, and shore up the economy through stimulus spending and taxation… or a right wing that wants to radically curtail the role of government and puts the deficit front and centre.

So: the Republicans will be cheering the prospect of a red-toothed conservative team, with a clearly defined political position offering voters a complete contrast to the Obama presidency. This won’t be a mere referendum on how well the economy is going: after all, that doesn’t seem to have worked for Romney so far.

But there are clear risks from pinning the GOP colours to quite so radical a mast. Ryan’s policies, as we’ve said, are pretty unpopular with older voters. He won’t do much to help the much vaunted gender gap either: not only did he vote against Obama’s Equal Pay Act, but successive polls have shown that women tend to favour a more activist role for government, especially when it comes to looking after people in their old age.

Ryan has also shown himself to be no fan of the healthcare system that Romney introduced in Massachussetts when he was Governor, the one that echoes much of the substance in the plan Obama fought so hard to introduce, in the teeth of fearsome conservative opposition.

Two years ago, Ryan dismissed it out of hand: “I’m not a fan”, he declared, “costs are spiralling out of control”. For the GOP, that could make it harder for them to bash the Democrats over Obama’s still pretty unpopular plan.

But now the speculation is finally over, the presidential race can at last begin in earnest. The Democrats are preparing to push out their first ads tonight: so it won’t take long to find out exactly how they’ll be using Ryan in their line of your attack.

But you can bet one thing: expect to hear a lot about Medicare – and big government – from now on.

Felicity Spector writes about US politics for Channel 4 News