16 August 2012

America. Who will lead it?

The announcement of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney's Republican running-mate for the US presidential election now sets the tone for the upcoming debate. Unlike the laughable choice of Sarah Palin as the Republican vice-presidential candidate in 2008, Ryan is someone who has to be treated seriously, and his selection tells us something about the Romney presidential 'story'. We all know that Romney is conservative (politically and in his personal demeanor) and that he's wealthy etc. Ryan adds a defining agenda to the Romney campaign, however. Basically, this is the Republican Party declaring war on America's poor and standing up for the interests of the top 0.1%. Ryan has a track-record in Congress for pushing radical alternative budgets (that would slash taxes for the wealthy and government spending on social and medical entitlements, but not on warfare and weapons - or so-called 'defence'), and for conservative positions on abortion. Knowing that Obama is politically vulnerable in any debate about the economy (due to the ongoing effects of the global financial crisis and the stubbornly high unemployment rates in the US), the choice of Ryan means that the Republicans want to put the economy at the centre of the debate leading up to the election.
But even though Rupert Murdoch described Ryan as 'almost perfect' as a candidate, he (Ryan) does, in turn, leave the Republican campaign open to counter-punches, especially due to his push to move Medicare (medical entitlements for the elderly) onto a voucher system. This policy, had it got through, may have dealt with the federal fiscal liability for future health-care of an ageing population, but the vouchers probably would lose value due to inflation, leaving many future elderly people having to self-finance health-care, or having to forego it. OK if you're rich, but not if you're poor, or even in the middle. Obama's strategists are already getting that message about Ryan out there.
Like many on the Republican far right, Ryan stands in that awkward ideological divide between economic libertarianism (competitive free markets, less government, and devil take the hindmost) and social conservatism (freedom to choose, so long as you don't choose abortion). He is known to have been a fan of arch-libertarian Ayn Rand – famous for her atheism – but, of course, no-one gets far in a presidential race in the US without making a public confession of private faith. Romney is a Mormon, and Ryan is Catholic, and so the latter's belonging to a more 'mainstream' denomination was perhaps a factor in his selection, as it balances out the narrowly sectarian basis of Romney's faith. But Ryan's past enthusiasm for Ayn Rand is now an embarrassment, and he will have to distance himself from her more radical views about personal choice in moral questions.
But will the Romney-Ryan story be a winner for the Republicans? So far, it looks unlikely to greatly improve their chances. As a distant outsider, it looks to me like Ryan was chosen to please an internal party audience – basically, the Tea Party faction. The announcement of his selection is bound to generate short-term interest in the Romney campaign. But I'd guess that he's more likely to be a 'scare' factor for many Americans: people who might not otherwise have bothered to vote and/or were supportive of Obama in 2008 but now feel disappointed with his record in office. For instance, the Hispanic voters who helped sweep Obama in last time may do the same again once the message about Ryan's extreme right-wing economic ideology starts to get through.


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