IN PICKING congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate for the presidency, Mitt Romney shunned “safety”. Instead, he selected a figure popular with the Republican base, but also a policy advocate with an unmatched grasp of conservative solutions to fix America’s $90 trillion (£57 trillion) of unfunded entitlements. This fact, however, will delight Democrats as much as it will endear the Ryan pick to Republicans.
As his party’s intellectual leader, Democrats have been running against Ryan longer than the Republican nominee himself. Democrats, and some Republicans, deem Ryan an overwhelming liability due to his proposals to reform Medicare, a health care plan for pensioners, and social security. The strategy for Democrats will be to remind voters that Republicans are committed to overhauling this “third rail” of American politics and ensure that they get burned. Polls conducted by PPP in Florida and North Carolina found that voters opposed Ryan’s plan by 16 and 23 per cent respectively. Losing North Carolina would wound Romney, but defeat in Florida would be mortal.
But Barack Obama is vulnerable on Medicare too. As Democrats double down and go on the offensive about what Republicans might do, Romney can merely highlight what Obama has already done: redirected over $720bn in Medicare funds to finance his deeply unpopular health care reforms. The fact that Ryan’s own mother is a “Medicare senior” in Florida will hardly deflect attacks, but it’s a humanised riposte. Obama is Ryan’s protection. As one of the main progressive calling cards, it would be outrageous for a Democratic President to be outmanoeuvred on Medicare. But it’s not impossible.
And yet for conservatives, a debate about policy is not necessarily seen as a bad thing, but as an opportunity to bait Democrats, wait for their incendiary language, and highlight not just their lack of ideas, but Obama’s failure of leadership. What’s more, Ryan has wide appeal – representing a Wisconsin district that voted for Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Obama. And, although there’s plenty of time to define Ryan, polls suggest that in the crucial swing state of Ohio, the congressman makes 42 per cent of independent voters more likely to back the Republican ticket, with just 18 per cent saying otherwise. Most surprising of all, Ryan receives his most positive numbers from senior citizens.
Ryan’s role now is to complement, not conquer, the ticket. It’s his job to lucidly convey the urgency of a Romney presidency, as the Republican nominee focuses on his own business experience and the need to elevate the tone of this ugly contest. Right now, Romney is keeping his head, as Democrats are losing theirs. For all the noise about Ryan, this election is still very much a choice between Romney and Obama. But although Republicans got their nominee a few months back, only now do conservatives have a ticket to fight for.
Ewan Watt is a Washington, DC-based consultant. You can follow him on Twitter @ewancwatt