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Risky and safe choice

August 18, 2012

PAUL Ryan is a bundle of contradictions. A budget wonk with eight per cent body fat, a bow-hunting anti-abortionist who strangles catfish with his bare hands, a Wisconsin-bred plain spoken midwesterner who’s spent his entire adult career manipulating complex webs of influence in Washington D.C.

And last but certainly not least, he’s perhaps the only vice-presidential selection that Mitt Romney could have made who is somehow eminently safe and dangerously risky.

How can he be both? Because he has simultaneously energised the right and given hope to the left.

The problem with the well-articulated policy stance of Ryan is that this Draconian approach to government expenditures is unpopular beyond the Republican base. Voters are wary of the drastic cuts and forceful transfer of spending power to the private sector he espouses. His proposal to transform Medicare into a “voucher programme” has made it easy for Democrats to fearmonger older people. Ryan’s budget propelled his recent climb to GOP rising star. Prior to 2009, his willingness to perform as a Bush congressional foot soldier camouflaged whatever radical, fiscally conservative plans lurked in his aerobically fit heart.

His votes for the budget-busting expenditures of the Bush years are either another internal contradiction or simple hypocrisy.

Some Republicans have spent energy framing Ryan’s conversion from ‘big-government conservative’ to ‘budget hawk’ as an evolution.

But if Ryan’s ideas progressed to walking upright under Obama, running with Romney has forced them to adopt a protective slouch.

Less than a week into the campaign Romney’s attack on Obama for introducing $700bn in Medicare cuts in the affordable care act has pushed Ryan to argue both for and against those cuts, which are a pillar of his own budget. In Ryan’s budget, the money moved from Medicare helps balance the proposed $4tr in tax cuts. Grasping desperately to out-frighten older voters, Romney has said that if elected they would be “putting the $716bn back”.

Ryan, pressed by Fox News, could only say that while he continued to back his own plan (with the cuts), he would vote to repeal those cuts as a part of repealing the act. For all these statements to cohere you have to have a rather generous definition of what it means to “put something back”.

Thus the Romney campaign has already blurred the clear distinctions that Ryan was supposed to bring. Take away the explicit propositions he claims as a hallmark and Ryan can only run on his biography. While he has an affecting story to tell — his father died when he was young, he has thrown himself into government service — narratives are not platforms.

Putting resumés and achievements forward in place of policies, or tax returns, is the problem that put Romney in the position to need Ryan. Pundits said the latter would turn this into a race of ideas, but “look at the shiny new nominee” is barely a notion. So, another contradiction: a vice-president whose addiction to the ticket has made it less than the sum of its parts. — The Guardian, London