If you read only the British press, you might get the impression that Mitt Romney couldn’t have found a more extreme running mate than Paul Ryan. The new vice presidential nominee is a Wisconsin Republican who chairs the House budget committee, in which capacity he has pushed for gradual but significant cuts in social welfare. Yet it seems that Ryan’s criticism of the National Health Service, so celebrated at the London Olympics, has rankled most.
‘Romney’s new No. 2 savages the NHS,’ declared the Times. The Guardian asked, ‘Is Paul Ryan’s attack on the NHS healthy criticism?’ (Three guesses as to what the answer is.) Even the Daily Mail dubbed Ryan a ‘conservative hardliner’.
Romney’s vice presidential choice hasn’t been altogether welcomed by the US media either. A blogger for Esquire condemned Ryan as a ‘murderer of opportunity’ and ‘political coward’, before settling on ‘zombie-eyed granny-starver’.
But so far the American people seem to feel differently. Not only is Ryan attracting much larger crowds at his speeches than Vice President Joe Biden; an ABC News/Washington Post poll actually found that Ryan’s popularity was improving despite the media carping. Favourable views of Ryan climbed 15 points compared to a previous survey.
It’s not just conservatives getting excited. Among independents, Ryan’s favourability numbers essentially doubled from 19 per cent to 39 per cent. Even in the swing state of Ohio, where Ryan’s budgetary views are supposed to be anathema to undecided blue-collar voters, Rasmussen found that 51 per cent of voters had a positive impression of the congressman, compared to 39 per cent negative. That’s definitely good enough for the Republican ticket to work with.
Will those numbers hold? Ryan is most famous for a budget plan that cuts most federal spending and turns Medicare — an arguably NHS-like government healthcare programme for Americans aged 65 and older — into a system that mostly subsidises private insurance premiums. Medicare and Social Security are considered the ‘Third Rail’ of US politics. If a politician touches either of them, he electrocutes his career.
Yet Ryan has only watched his standing grow as he has emerged as Congress’s most daring reformer of Third Rail spending. Some of his ideas have been echoed by centrist Democrats in think-tank policy papers, though none will sign on to his specific legislation. Democrats prefer to run television advertisements depicting Ryan pushing elderly, wheelchair-bound women off cliffs.
Nevertheless, what was once Ryan’s obscure ‘Roadmap’ would, if the will of the Republican-controlled House were followed, in modified form become the federal budget of the United States. The Ryan plan received majority support in the House and had the second-highest number of votes in the Senate. The only budget proposal to receive more votes was a Republican alternative that built on Ryan’s Medicare ideas.
Ryan’s bargain is essentially that he wants to make US spending commitments commensurate with the country’s historic tax burden, without excessive cuts to defence spending. That requires a rethinking of entitlements that benefit the old and the poor. Ryan argues that these programmes can be restructured in a way that keeps them solvent and consistent with their mission, while relatively low tax rates would enable a flourishing private sector and robust economic growth.
The criticism of Ryan’s budgetary proposals is that he wants to cut spending for the poor, old and sick so he can reduce taxes for the rich. This is not, strictly speaking, true. Medicare and Social Security are running out of money in their present form. They will not be able to pay anything like their current benefits without cuts, tax increases or, in the case of Medicare, increased rationing of care.
Ryan’s budget actually provides relatively more benefits for the poorest and sickest retirees. In its current iteration, it anticipates a modest climb in federal taxes as a percentage of GDP compared to the postwar norm.
But the political outlook for Ryan’s budget is, on first glance, not good. A policy that contains lower marginal income tax rates for the top earners while promising to wring trillions in savings from social welfare spending can be easily attacked. Thus there is a risk that Ryan will be successfully caricatured as a maniacal cutter.
The Democrats are already portraying Romney as an uncaring CEO who lays people off and ruins their economic futures. One pro-Obama advertisement even suggests Romney is responsible for the death of a woman who was married to a steel worker laid off by the Republican candidate’s former company (which Romney was not actually running at the time).
If the image that has plagued Romney since he first started running for office in 1994 is that of a penny-pincher who believes numbers on a spreadsheet are more important than people, a budget-conscious Republican congressman may not be the best candidate to correct his public relations problem. Romney and Ryan must win both Ohio, with its large working-class base, and Florida, with its high concentration of retirees on Medicare, in order to have any hope of claiming the White House.
Yet Ryan has advantages that Romney does not. His own background is impeccably middle-class and his personality is mild, which makes him harder to present as a right-wing bogeyman. Ryan is eloquent about his own budgetary vision and even more effective in sharply attacking Barack Obama’s economic stewardship. Add to that the fact there is a conservative enthusiasm for Ryan that has eluded Romney since the Republican primaries and you begin to see why the Republican nominee was willing to risk the grandma-in-a-wheelchair commercials. The hope for Republicans is that Ryan is not simply a quick political fix but part of a larger plan to make a sustained case against Obama’s fiscal policies. There’s scarcely a Republican in the country who can make the economic argument against Obama better. The risk is that the argument that decides the election will be about Ryan’s own budget plans instead.