WHEN GEORGE W Bush launched into his second presidential term in 2004, largely on the back of a re-election campaign dominated by the fight against terrorism, he hitched his colours to a radical Republican idea to reform social security and Medicare, the massive pension and healthcare systems for the aged. The “big idea”, supposed to become the cornerstone of his domestic project, and crafted by young, little-known House member from Wisconsin, Paul Ryan, and Senator John Sununu, was to give back to workers half their payroll taxes so that they could invest them in private pension funds.
Ryan, eight years later a darling of conservatives and Tea Party supporters for his anti-deficit militancy and radical budget-cutting programme, has now been embraced by Mitt Romney as his vice-presidential running mate. It is a move that has delighted the party’s conservatives – less concerned with electability than ideological purity – and is intended to provide a boost that Romney, currently behind in the polls, badly needs. But the fate of the Ryan-Sununu plan should provide a salutory warning of the dangers in his new alliance.
Bush toured the country promoting a diluted version of the social security plan, but was savaged by Democrats playing on the fears of the elderly that they would lose benefits. Bush’s poll figures slumped, and by the autumn the plan had been shelved.
President Obama’s team has already started “reminding” voters of what they are calling the Ryan-Romney Medicare plan which would leave older Americans on average with $6,400 in extra costs by 2022, according to the Congressional Budget Office. And Ryan’s radical budget proposals are likely to prove just as much a liability to the campaign. The congressman made his name as chairman of the House Budget Committee by arguing that opponents of Obama’s budget needed to be specific about what they would cut and he set out in politically painful detail how to axe $6 trillion from federal spending over the next decade. “I have my budget plan,” Romney says. “And that’s the budget plan we’re going to run on.” If Obama’s team will let him.
The choice of Ryan, like John McCain’s of Sarah Palin, is all about mobilising turnout in a conservative base that has been vocally sceptical of Romney, particularly his tendency to prevaricate. In Ryan, an Irish Catholic who has campaigned against abortion, same-sex marriage and gun control, he has not only an economic but a social conservative, ticking all sorts of boxes.
Yet, is this where the battle will be fought? The Ryan selection moves the Republican Party harder to the right than at any time since 1964, when the true believers got a nominee but ended up with only 39 per cent of the vote. One analyst describes Ryan as the most conservative Republican congressman to be picked for the VP slot since at least 1900. There are still some undecided voters – not many – and conventional wisdom suggests they should be Romney’s priority and where he should be pitching with his VP. But the logic-defying dynamics of Republican politics demand otherwise.