Romney Takes a Risk with Ryan

‘Paul Ryan will thrash Joe Biden in debate and the Tea Party will enthusiastically endorse their poster boy but Romney’s choice of running mate will attract few new voters’

Dispatches US Politics

The choice of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s running mate is an undoubted risk for the Republican candidate. At a time when his poll numbers, especially in all-important Florida and Ohio, weren’t looking good, he has chosen to “double down” on his central message: that only the Republicans can be trusted to turn around the US economy. As chairman of the House Budget committee, Ryan came up with a radical cost-cutting plan that would have set the federal budget back on track to solvency, at the cost of cutting entitlements and trimming America’s burgeoning welfare state. He shamed the Republican party into adopting it, although of course it had no chance of becoming law in Obama’s America. By choosing Ryan, Romney has effectively adopted the Ryan Plan too, even though it was denounced by Newt Gingrich as “right-wing social engineering” and by the Democrats as an assault on Medicare and Medicaid.

Romney obviously feels that by choosing Ryan he will put America’s “debt, doubt and despair” (Ryan’s phrase) centre-stage in this election, and force Americans to choose between two radically different alternatives. Since many more Americans are Friedmanites than Keynesians, it might just work. Furthermore, the Romney-Ryan ticket can’t be linked closely to the Bush Administration, since Ryan was a vocal critic of Bush’s spending increases. Plus Ryan will thrash Joe Biden in the vice-presidential debate, because Biden is a woeful debater and Ryan is highly intelligent, as I discovered when he attended a speech of mine in Wisconsin a couple of years ago, and came up afterwards to ask the smartest questions of the evening.

Yet there are problems. Americans like to vote for vice-presidents who they can easily envisage taking over the White House should the president be assassinated or incapacitated, and Paul Ryan is only 42, although he has served in Congress for 14 years. Furthermore, Wisconsin only has 10 electoral votes, compared to Ohio’s 20 and Florida’s 27. It might also be that America’s addiction to handouts and entitlements has already gone so far that the White House’s scare tactics about the Ryan Plan will now energise those welfare recipients who are presently lukewarm about voting at all in November into turning out for the Democrats. Most Republican voters who would be encouraged to vote because Ryan is now on the ticket — such as entrepreneurs who believe that they did indeed build their own businesses themselves — are already fired up because Obama is on the opposing one.

Pretty much whatever happens, however, Ryan has been catapulted to the top echelons of the Republican hierarchy. If Romney loses in a tight race, Ryan will be the man to beat for the 2016 nomination. If Romney wins, Ryan will still be only 50 in 2020.  A personable, energetic and decent man, and one moreover with the only credible plan to save the American economy, Ryan nonetheless represents a risk for Romney, one which he didn’t necessarily have to take. As the Democrats now try to turn Ryan into a second Sarah Palin, Romney will be hoping that Ryan’s numbers — both economic and psephological — do indeed add up.   

Although the Tea Party disliked Romney, seeing him as a “country club” Republican and a “Rino” (Republican In Name Only), his nomination of their poster-boy pin-up Ryan means that they are going to be enthusiastically endorsing the ticket, which they might not have if Romney had chosen a doppelganger such as Rob Portman. With around 92 per cent of electors already decided who to vote for, getting one’s supporters out on the day will be almost as important as winning over the undecided, and as the 2010 mid-term elections proved, the Tea Party’s organisation on the ground in superb at doing just that.  

For all that a presidential election ought to be about issues as much as — or ideally more than — personalities, the 2012 race so far resolutely isn’t. Both sides claim to be running on the issues, of course, and blame the other for focusing on personality instead, but that is only really true of the Republicans, because Obama wins “likeability” polls by 59 per cent to Romney’s 30 per cent, so there is little advantage for the Grand Old Party to attack Obama’s personality.

Yet after three months of relentlessly attacking Romney as a heartless, tax-dodging, “vulture capitalist” asset-stripper — at a cost of at least $131 million in TV advertising alone — the Democrats have not yet established a clear lead in the presidential, let alone the congressional, race. About 16 per cent of Americans are willing to vote for Romney even though they don’t much like him. If America’s economic woes allow him to increase that number by 5 per cent, or if the Republican Convention in Tampa increases his likeability even fractionally, it could still be President-elect Romney in November.

The number of genuinely undecided voters is estimated at around 7 per cent, far fewer than at this stage in 2008, and they are being chased by a staggering $6.5 billion of spending on TV and cable adverts for federal and state races this year, up from $4.8 billion in 2008. In the past three months, Romney has raised over $100m each month, with Obama hovering at $75m. This could be significant if it continues, because for all that there are 130 million voters, the result will be decided by about a quarter of a million wavering voters in about ten battleground states. With unemployment rising in six of them — Michigan, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire and Virginia — there might well be enough voters who will vote for the successful businessman whom they don’t much like. In three more battleground states — Nevada, Florida and North Carolina — the unemployment rate remains unchanged, and in Nevada it’s 11.6 per cent, the highest in the nation. Only in Ohio is it falling, for now.

Of course Margaret Thatcher proved in 1983 that it is possible to get re-elected with high unemployment, but in 1980s Britain voters looked to several other indicators to gauge the underlying health of the economy. Here in America, the jobless total has an iconic status amongst the key numbers, its announcement having an immediate effect on the opinion polls. A bad set of results — possibly as a result of the euro crisis hitting US trade still further — might also push American voters into the GOP camp. Here, Thatcher might provide a better template, since she was elected in 1979 despite “like-ability” scores way below Jim Callaghan’s.

In the 16 months after President Obama filed for re-election on April 4, 2011, he attended no fewer than 195 fundraisers, well over twice the number that the previous president fitted into the same time frame when he was in office. Commentators such as the former Bush campaign chief Karl Rove think this might have exhausted Obama; hence the series of unprofessional gaffes he has been making. “We tried our plan and it worked!” the President said of the US economy in Oakland, California. “The private sector is doing fine,” he has also said, and, by far the most damaging, “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen,” as he informed the people of Roanoke, Virginia on July 13. Yet that last statement — a direct attack on the central, entrepreneurial part of the American Dream — was actually written on his teleprompter. A speechwriter thought it up, the chief speechwriter let it through, political director David Axelrod failed to cut it out, and the President actually said it. They can’t all have been exhausted from fundraising. It’s rare that Rove makes excuses for President Obama, and this one won’t wash.

Fortunately for Obama, the mainstream media here truly hate having to run negative stories about him.  Thus NBC only broadcast one segment on the story, despite its gaining huge traction elsewhere, ABC and CBS ignored it altogether, and CNN waited four days before reporting it, and only then because Romney had picked up on it. By total contrast, an absurd non-story about the precise date on which Romney left Bain Capital in 1999 was covered no fewer than 17 times by all the major networks in the same week as Obama’s denunciation of job-creators.

The networks have also massively amplified the accusation made by Senator Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, that Romney has paid no taxes at all for years, even though Reid had to admit that he had no evidence beyond rumour and speculation upon which to base the accusation, and Romney completely denies it. When Obama therefore accuses Romney of being “Robin Hood in reverse”, i.e. stealing from the poor to give to the rich, and can only cite a left-wing think tank’s ideologically-biased “report” in support, the networks give it traction. Even though more than one-third of Americans pay no income tax at all, and the top 20 per cent of earners pay 68 per cent of the taxes, there is still room for a re-election campaign that is based on naked class warfare.

The question remains, of course: why didn’t Romney, who has known for at least five years that he was going to run for president, make his tax returns so watertight that they could be publicly released? (His father released ten years of tax returns when he was governor of Michigan in the 1960s.)  Even if it cost Romney a few million dollars by foreswearing tax havens not available to ordinary Americans, why didn’t he instruct his accountants to draw up a set of returns that would look fine even if the Democratic National Committee posted them on the internet? He was trying to become the most powerful man on the planet; might that not have been worth the trouble, if only for a few years? The answer is a mystery even to Romney’s closest advisers; perhaps it’s just that the rich are different from the rest of us. Yet it’s clear that he pays every penny required under federal law, and for Reid to accuse him of paying nothing is disgraceful.

“There are two things that are important in politics,” said Mark Hanna, who managed William McKinley’s presidential campaign against William Jennings Bryan in 1896. “The first is money, and I can’t remember what the second one is.” Americans have lost 38 per cent of their net worth in the period since 2007. For most of them — those on median incomes — this means that 20 years’ accumulation of wealth has been wiped out in five years, four of them under Obama. The median wealth for a US family was $126,000 in 2007 and is $77,000 today. The collapse in house prices, stock prices and incomes (down from $50,000 a year to $46,000 for median incomes) means that the middle classes have witnessed a real-life, real-time catastrophe in the past half-decade. If Obama wins, it will explode the theory that “it’s all about the economy, stupid.”

If Obama loses, it will also explode the theory that Americans are fearful of voting against a black president for fear of seeming racist, even though the same people had voted for him in 2008 partly because they did want to see a black president in the White House. Then there’s what’s known in political circles here as “the Bradley Effect”. Tom Bradley was the first black mayor of Los Angeles, who in 1982 ran for governor of California. He seemed to be headed for victory on the basis of the polls, but he lost. It was later discovered that even in telephone polling, voters lied about their voting intentions to avoid sounding racist.

It is customary in every election — British as well as American — for the candidates to intone that the stakes could not be higher, that this is the most important choice for a generation, and so on. It’s in the media’s interests to agree, not least in order to snaffle that $6.5 billion in election advertising  looking for outlets. Yet Karl Rove’s Political Action Committee, “American Crossroads”, might not be named hyperbolically. In 1979 the number of Americans on means-tested benefits was 7 per cent; today it is more than 30 per cent. The number of Americans who get their food from the government via the food stamp programme has exploded from 17 million only 12 years ago to 46 million today. Since 2009, when 2.6 million signed on with new employers, half a million more than that signed on for disability allowances. Under Obama those trajectories will undoubtedly continue, and probably worsen. 

The dependency culture is the Democrats’ best electoral friend. Romney appreciates that it leads to Great Power suicide. The road to serfdom beckons — but America does not have to go down it.