The U.S. presidential election is boiling down to a stark choice about the role of government after Republican nominee Mitt Romney picked the party’s leading budget hawk as his vice-presidential running mate.
Mr. Romney’s selection of Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan amounts to a wager that Americans are ready for tough fiscal medicine: Mr. Ryan’s controversial budget blueprint proposes slashing spending on food stamps, student grants and health care for the poor.
A Romney-Ryan ticket also offers a dramatic contrast with President Barack Obama, who has moved further to the left as he seeks re-election, with a platform of tax increases on the wealthy and larger state investments in education, health care and infrastructure.
But the addition of Mr. Ryan to the ticket could leave centrist voters cold and does little to enhance Republican appeal among key constituencies pollsters believe the party needs to rally to win the White House and Congress: Hispanics and women.
As such, Mr. Romney’s decision to bet on the 42-year-old seven-term congressman surprised analysts who had expected him to go with a safe choice or pick someone who could woo minorities or single female voters. Ohio Senator Rob Portman and ex-Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, both of whom are considered colourless but competent, were reportedly among the final three contenders for a spot on the ticket.
In the end, Mr. Romney picked the Midwesterner most apt to energize the Republican base. And, judging by the reaction to Saturday’s announcement, he hit the jackpot. The conservative establishment and Tea Party movement were both ecstatic with the decision.
A native of Janesville, Wisc., the boyish Mr. Ryan is a devout Catholic and family man who regularly stops by his neighbourhood Dunkin’ Donuts for coffee. A disciplined fitness buff – he follows the P90X program popularized by late-night infomercials – his hobbies include catching catfish with his bare hands in his wife’s native Oklahoma.
His sunny optimism, as much as his indefatigable defence of free-market principles, has made him a favourite of the GOP rank-and-file and establishment alike. Their enthusiasm is critical in ensuring a high Republican turnout in November and an uptick in donations as the campaign enters its most decisive phase.
Democrats also jumped on Mr. Romney’s pick to make their own appeal for money. Obama campaign manager Jim Messina sent out an e-mail saying Mr. Romney “doubled down on his commitment to take our country back to the failed policies of the past.”
On Sunday, Mr. Obama’s chief strategist David Axelrod said the millionaire Mr. Romney would pay an effective tax rate of less than 1 per cent if Mr. Ryan’s budget plan became law. The plan, which would slash federal spending by $6-trillion (U.S.) over 10 years, would also cut corporate and personal income taxes by $4-trillion.
“I think they are kindred spirits on some of these policies,” Mr. Axelrod told CNN.
The Obama campaign has spent months defining Mr. Romney, a former corporate buy-out executive with a net worth of more than $250-million, as a cold-hearted capitalist whose policies would lead to an even wider gap between rich and poor.
Putting Mr. Ryan on the ticket does nothing to soften that image. As chairman of the House of Representatives budget committee, he has championed turning Medicare into a voucher program under which future seniors would get a fixed subsidy (based on income) to buy health insurance. While that would help control spiralling Medicare expenditures, it would leave most seniors paying several thousand dollars a year more out of pocket.
Mr. Romney’s spokespeople denied that picking Mr. Ryan amounted to an outright adoption of his budget proposals as part of the Republican platform. While the Ryan plan “goes in the right direction,” they insisted Mr. Romney “will be putting together his own plan for cutting the deficit and putting the budget on a path to balance.”
Still, the choice of Mr. Ryan is an open attempt to win over Republican opinion leaders who have harboured doubts about his commitment to conservative ideals. And on that front, Mr. Romney was able to declare mission accomplished.
Veteran commentator Charles Krauthammer compared Mr. Ryan to Ronald Reagan, who was first considered too conservative to win over centrist voters when he won the Republican nomination in 1980. Democrats figured he would be easy to beat.
“I think Ryan has that Reagan-like quality,” Mr. Krauthammer said on Fox News. Democrats “are now underestimating who they now have as an opponent.”
On a tour of North Carolina on Sunday, a newly energized Mr. Romney seemed to have gotten a boost of adrenalin from his running mate. The two seem to enjoy a strong chemistry, displaying none of awkwardness that surfaced when 2008 GOP nominee John McCain shared the stage with Sarah Palin.
“We're at an inflection point in this country where the very idea of what America stands for is on the line,” Mr. Ryan told the crowd. “Every generation faces this test; this is our generation's test.”