The Sunday review: Paul Ryan

by Anthony Painter

What must it be like to be a guy who can only feel he’s succeeded in life if he becomes US President? It is difficult to look at Mitt Romney without posing this question. It is this basic fact that is making his campaign always feel edgy, nervy, gaffe-prone and slightly desperate. It was in sore need of a bit relaxation and that is what the choice of Paul Ryan constitutes – a therapeutic massage. It is a luxury that is unaffordable even for a man as well-heeled as Mitt Romney.

Scanning Mitt Romney’s biography, it is impossible not to be impressed unless one applies some perversely high standard. He was a successful – and moderate – governor of Massachusetts. His business career was, on its own terms, highly successful. He rescued the Salt Lake Olympics. Regardless of his undoubted advantages in life, this is a very impressive curriculum vitae. It earns him the right to considerable respect. For himself, it is nowhere near enough.

Mitt Romney, as is well established, is in the shadow of his father. George Romney, who was certainly seen as a possible contender for a presidential run himself, was a Rockefeller Republican. He walked out of the 1964 Republican Convention in protest at the Republican nominee, Barry Goldwater, who stood opposed to the Civil Rights Act.

This was the last election before the politics of race swiveled the geography of American electoral politics. Goldwater wanted to hold the south, governor Romney of Michigan, wanted to retain the moderate Republican presence in the industrial north. Goldwater Republicans won the party while being trounced in the election – in part, as a consequence of the division precipitated by Romney’s objection to Goldwater’s approach.

His father’s biography is a lot to live up to. The paradox, however, is that this enormous pressure seems to be taking its toll. In his quest to out-achieve an over-achieving father he seems to be making mistakes. The appointment of Paul Ryan as his running mate falls into this category.

Ryan is no Sarah Palin – far too bright and sophisticated a politician for that – but it is a Sarah Palin-esque decision. Seeking to “game change” more often than not backfires. The point of John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s book Game Change, however, is that when it comes to vice-presidential picks, the “game changing” option is more often in your opponent’s favour.

In what universe is the pathway to 270 electoral votes and the presidency clad with a Republican base pleasing vice-presidential pick? In a country where the fastest going electoral groupings are independents, Hispanics and young people, of what appeal is the Ryan plan and its slashing of investment in the future, the removal of a safety net and tax benefits for the wealthy? How will his opposition to gay equality and the DREAM Act on immigration reform play with these groups? The best he can offer in electoral terms is some marginal benefit in his home state of Wisconsin – perhaps.

He’ll scare the hell out of the old folks in Florida whatever the actual policy detail is. If Romney loses Florida, it’s almost impossible to see him securing the presidency.

There seems to be four practical considerations at play with Romney’s pick. Firstly, the alternatives – such as the ever so dull Rob Portman and Tim Pawlenty – were pretty dire. They wouldn’t have detracted from Romney but they wouldn’t have added anything either.

Secondly, he clearly has been impressed with Ryan’s policy capability and would like that inside his White House rather than causing trouble for it on the outside. He might need to remember that there is an election to win first.

The third factor is slightly more perverse. Romney, having spent the last four years appealing to the party’s right, seems now to be bound to them – this appears to be a case of political Stockholm Syndrome. Finally, the fundraising base loves Ryan and having blown his Republican opponents out of the water, perhaps his campaign think they can deploy serious financial power to do the same to Obama. It seems likely that the Ryan pick has fired up Obama’s fundraising base also.

There’s something else too. Romney and Ryan appear to have generated a powerful personal rapport. Batman is getting frequent mentions in the political arena at the moment. There is something of the Bruce Wayne in Mitt Romney – minus the heroic alter-ego. Well, Ryan has that very young brother, very old brother, bordering on father-son type relationship with Romney. He is Romney’s Robin. Essentially, Mitt Romney needs some comfort as it all appears to be getting too much for him.

The ability with numbers, the solid family life, healthiness and clear communication are wonderful qualities. They are perfect for a Bain & Co executive and Ryan would be have been great in Romney’s former firm. That, ultimately, is Mitt Romney’s comfort zone. The nomination was about comforting the candidate rather than winning an election. He’s put his own needs ahead of strategy. It’s a strange moment, when the burden of your own personal expectation is so high, to succumb to emotion.

Ryan will perform well on the stump, on TV and in the vice presidential debate. For months though the Democrats have been trying to pin the Ryan plan on Romney. If you are positioning yourself in exactly the place your opponents are aiming to put you then you are doing something very wrong. The plan in itself is basically about reversing the social gains made during the twentieth century. It is about catapulting the US back to the pre-New Deal era. Randism is great for the wealthy and successful – for the Mitt Romneys – but not for the majority. As we move towards the election, expect the plan to become a lead weight on the Romney campaign.

Apart from one congressional primary, pretty much every political opponent Obama has faced has imploded. Picking Ryan hardly constitutes implosion – yet. It does widen the spread on the election though. What was looking like a marginal Obama win now looks like a wider one. What on earth must be going through the head of Willard Mitt Romney? Whatever it is, the weight of George Romney on his shoulders is proving to be too great.

Anthony Painter is an author and a critic

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2 Responses to “The Sunday review: Paul Ryan”

  1. Sigmund F. says:

    Anthony Painter is an author and a critic? Reading the beginning of the essay, I thought he was a shrink. He clearly missed his vocation…

  2. Mike Homfray says:

    Randism may only benefit the rich and successful, but the Americans are remarkable in managing to support parties who are clearly not in their economic interests. Poor southern states are strongly Republican

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