Candidate Analysis: Paul Ryan

by Slade Mendenhall and Brian Underwood
In writing of his appointment as the first vice president of the United States, John Adams once wrote, “My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.”¹ Subsequent tenants of the position have expressed similar sentiments. It is both a necessary and discomfiting station, however, and in modern politics has become as crucial to a president’s election and the image of his power as it is to the functioning of his administration– sometimes considerably more so. The role played by the vice president in policy formation is extremely varied, ranging from the seemingly minimal role of a Dan Quayle or Spiro Agnew (who, in Henry Kissinger’s account of the Nixon Administration, The White House Years, does not appear in any accounts of serious policy deliberations for the first 500 pages of the book) to the very prominent involvement of George H.W. Bush under Reagan or, more controversially, Dick Cheney under George W. Bush. Thus it has been with great anticipation that the public has awaited the announcement of Mitt Romney’s pick for the Republican vice presidential nominee for 2012. Yesterday, at a campaign rally in Norfolk, Virginia, Romney put an end to the weeks of speculation by announcing Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate. Whether Ryan’s role as vice president will be active or reserved, prominent or subtle, his selection is a window into the state and direction of the Romney campaign thus far and, for those focused on this very crucial election and the choices that Americans are being presented with, it is of great value to look at the young congressman’s merits– both as a candidate and future vice president.

As a purely political choice, the congressman from Wisconsin is of uncertain value. He guarantees no significant demographic or regional interest and does not come from a vital swing state. He doesn’t bring major electoral college numbers or a more culturally dynamic appeal like Marco Rubio would have, nor does he cut into President Obama’s urban demographics the way that Condoleezza Rice might. The midwest in general and Wisconsin in particular weren’t points of concern for Romney. However, Ryan does bring an everyman image that counters the “Mitt Romney worked at Bain Capital” non-argument upon which the Obama campaign has tried desperately and failingly to constitute its whole approach. He rids Romney of the image of a suit without a soul, reorienting the campaign’s themes upon those qualities which the two men have in common and tempering the class warfare rhetoric which Obama relies upon so heavily.

Ryan appeals most strongly to Tea Partiers– hardly a swing vote in the first place. He is personable, level-headed, well-spoken, and has effectively conveyed that not only in the press and House Budget Committee, which he chairs, but through his “Path to Prosperity” YouTube videos crafted for a purpose unique in modern politics: to actually educate the general public about the issues debated in his committee and his proposals to solve them. As he used easy-to-read graphics and candid explanations to describe the nation’s fiscal woes, it was clear that Ryan was a progressive communicator comfortable using new media platforms to promote conservative ideas. In that light, perhaps Romney’s choice of Ryan could be viewed as a stalemate defense against the Obama/Biden dynamic championed in 2008 that established the image of a young and energetic scion paired with a steady-handed veteran politician, an image which has proven ironic in light of Joe Biden’s predisposition to emotionalist outbursts, his apparent lack of a personal filter, and the administration’s resulting need for repeated damage control measures. It is true that Ryan does appeal to young people who already lean conservative, though whether that will apply to young undecided voters is another matter.

One indisputable value which Ryan will bring to the campaign is poise, clarity and effectiveness at the podium in the coming vice presidential debate with Joe Biden. Where Biden’s history of public speaking has been characterized by red-faced flares of emotion and patronizing platitudes towards working class Americans, Ryan offers cool, intellectual, goal-oriented rhetoric, elucidating concrete plans and strategies with cognizance of both the course he wishes to pursue and the need to overcome partisan barriers to do so. If anyone among Romney’s VP options could effectively highlight the current liberal denial of this nation’s impending fiscal disaster, it is Ryan.

If Ryan has a distinguishing public image at this point, it is tied up with his controversial budget proposal of last year. That proposal, despite having been rejected by the Senate and subjecting Ryan to absurd liberal caricatures unworthy of repetition, gilded the image of Ryan, the defender of fiscal prudence. This fits soundly with the no-frills, economy-focused campaign strategy run by the Romney camp thus far, adding depth and specificity to Romney’s generalities about lower taxes and a renewed focus on the virtues of the “private sector.” The benefit of this is clearly designed to be a reinvigoration of conservatives after a long year of rather hectic primary politics. However, this approach is high-risk and contrary to the conventional wisdom of modern presidential politics since Kennedy selected Johnson to win the South, which dictates that a vice presidential candidate provide a marked contrast in personality, experience, and/or electoral weight to the presidential candidate he serves. In summation, Paul Ryan the vice presidential candidate has a considerable share of both pros and cons. As management of the Romney campaign has thus far been unsteady but prevalent, one must give them some benefit of the doubt on a decision whose value only time will tell, but the choice of Ryan presents a number of questions about the strategy of the Romney camp going into the last three months of the election.

What of Ryan the vice president?

Where the choice of Paul Ryan as a vice presidential candidate leaves many unanswered questions for political strategists, observers, and commentators regarding the overarching strategy of the Romney campaign, the notion of an actual Vice President Paul Ryan unleashes the opportunity for even greater and more intriguing speculation. But rather than dealing with the almost naively optimistic assertions that Ryan will become a staunch, unyielding ally to the Tea Party in office, or with the deeply cynical claims that Ryan’s policies will mimic those of George W. Bush and other conservative statists invariably, let us examine the candidate’s record – both recent and distant – to rationally infer that which voters can expect from a Vice President Ryan.

Though this Congressman from Wisconsin has garnered much notoriety for himself as of late due to his controversial budget proposal, Rep. Paul Ryan actually has a record in Congress that dates back to 1999 and a record in politics dating back even further. During the 90s, having graduate from Miami University with degrees in Economics and Political Science, Ryan worked under several prominent members of the Republican Party. He served as the legislative director of U.S. Senator Sam Brownback (the current Governor of Kansas) and as a speechwriter for 1996 Republican vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp. In 1998, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives at the notably young age of 28. He has been elected to the same position consecutively since then, now serving in his seventh term.

A look at his voting record throughout seven terms in office, unfortunately, reveals a conflicting set of premises within Mr. Ryan’s personal philosophy. As the Bush Administration massively expanded the size and scope of the federal government throughout the greater part of the first decade in the 21st Century, the young congressman from Wisconsin largely toed the party line politically on most key issues. In the post-9/11 fallout, he joined the error of his conservative counterparts by identifying the enemy as “terrorism” rather than Islamism – an error which he continues to perpetuate, as noted by his House page on the “War on Terrorism” which only mentions Islamism once. Too, Ryan voted in favor of the legal directive which gave President Bush the authority to go to war against the Baathist Hussein regime in Iraq, a remarkably misguided altruistic endeavor on the part of the American people and military. Though unquestionably the Hussein regime deserved to fall and it is good that it did, that Ryan saw the Hussein regime as a greater threat to the security of the United States than its Islamist neighbor that continued to sponsor the murder of American soldiers long after Hussein fell is a clear indication that he is not likely to challenge the current Republican paradigm of the “War on Terror” as vice president.

Furthermore, Ryan’s endorsement of other examples of Bush Era statism, most predominantly the Patriot Act, Medicare Part D, No Child Left Behind, and the TARP bailouts, is deeply concerning. Votes for policies like the NDAA and the GM/Chrysler bailouts under the Obama Administration only intensifies that concern. There is a list of precious few Republicans in office at the time that voted against these policies, and sadly it is a list on which Rep. Paul Ryan’s name is not included. He even went so far as to offer a clear echo to President Bush’s claim that, by supporting TARP, he had “abandoned free market principles to save the free market.” Except in the case of Ryan, the contradiction was even more stark: “Madame Speaker, this bill offends my principles, but I’m gonna vote for this bill in order to preserve my principles.” Quite frankly, such a statement would be more suitably be made by Mitt Romney who has demonstrated quite consistently that he is willing to forgo “principle” for a fleeting, temporary purpose. If Romney was looking for another man to share in his pragmatism, Ryan fulfills that role far too well.

But even through the statism and the congressman’s own brand of “practical politics,” there is something to be valued in Rep. Ryan’s record. At the beginning of the Bush Administration, Paul Ryan and other Republicans took part in removing some regulatory provisions from the Depression Era Glass-Steagall Act of 1933. Doing so was not enough to prevent the financial collapse of 2008, as too many other statist policies in the housing and financial sectors continued under the Bush Administration unchallenged, but the repeal of Glass-Steagall played a positive role in permitting the post-crash consolidations and buyouts of major Wall Street firms by other firms, preventing their collapse and mitigating the effects on creditors.

In the mid-2000s, Ryan even pushed very strongly for privatizing Social Security. Though the Bush Administration offered a “partial-privatization” solution, the issue was not pushed and it eventually failed. Though Fmr. President Bush now holds that his “biggest failure in office was not reforming social security,” no fault for that failure should be allotted to the representative from Wisconsin, as he did push for that reform.

What has thrust this Wisconsin congressman into the spotlight more than anything else has been his proposed budget over the last few years. In contrast to President Obama’s proposed budget plans which, according to the Cato Institute, would never achieve a balanced budget, the Ryan Budget would, albeit nearly three decades down the road. Truthfully, the likelihood of such a budget staying in place over the course of fifteen different congresses and, potentially, over half a dozen potential presidencies is absurdly small. The notion of reducing spending “in the future” rather than reducing current spending is largely a fiscal smokescreen that allows politicians to say that they “cut spending” while also passing the buck to their successor to actually perform the cuts. So granting Ryan the exaggerated title of a “deficit hawk” or a “champion of the free market” represents a substantial attempt to paint him as being more free market than he really is. Laudable though it may be to challenge the budget offered by President Obama by producing one which would save $3.3T over the next ten years, it is a far cry from a concerted attempt to manage and reduce our deficit (especially considering Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky offered an alternative which would have balanced the budget in five years).

Interestingly enough, Ryan once purported himself to be a fairly strong fan of Ayn Rand and her writings. According the the Los Angeles Times, Ryan goes so far as to credit Rand for being “[t]he reason [he] got into public service,” iterating Rand’s sentiments that the issues of modern politics are fundamentally  “a fight between individualism and collectivism.” Politico reports that in 2003, Ryan openly admitted to presenting copies of Rand’s magnum opus Atlas Shrugged to his staffers, and in 2009 had much praise to offer the novelist-philosopher:

“…what’s unique about what’s happening today in government, in the world, in America, is that it’s as if we’re living in an Ayn Rand novel right now. I think Ayn Rand did the best job of anybody to build a moral case of capitalism, and that morality of capitalism is under assault… Ayn Rand, more than anyone else, did a fantastic job of explaining the morality of capitalism, the morality of individualism, and this to me is what matters most.”

Well said. But earlier this year, Paul Ryan backed away from his support of Ayn Rand. In April, Ryan told The National Review: “I reject her philosophy. It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas. Don’t give me Ayn Rand.” Interestingly, Ayn Rand herself considered Aquinas her second favorite philosopher behind only Aristotle (Aquinas’s religion notwithstanding). Regardless, there is a rather stark difference between Ryan’s sentiments towards Ayn Rand and Objectivism between now and just three years ago. Though his support for capitalism and capitalist political policies has already been demonstrated to be inconsistent at best, the contrast between Ryan’s statements in 2009 and 2012 (not to mention between his statements and his actions) provide a great deal of insight into Ryan’s philosophy and its susceptibility to change.

Given Ryan’s frequently contradictory political career, what could one expect from a Ryan vice presidency? More essentially, what is the nature of the philosophy which drives him?

Perhaps the most accurate way to philosophically label Paul Ryan would be as a mixed-premise pragmatist. Although Ryan should certainly be commended for displaying a greater level of principle than his running mate (though this is not saying much), he still displays the hallmarks of a pragmatist moral philosophy – that is, foregoing one’s long-term, rational self-interests for the immediately expedient. Though his noted intellectual background will predispose him to staying focused on actual issues more than our current vice president, how he intends to approach those issues remains to be seen.

Unquestionably, Ryan leans more toward a free market than either Obama or Romney, but it should be considered highly improbable that Ryan will offer noteworthy challenges to the policies of the Romney Administration, whatever they may turn out to be. As he lacks a solid, principled foundation from which to push his running mate towards principled decisions, the American public should expect Ryan to be more of a public relations figurehead than a substantive advocate for free market principles. Advocates of capitalism should be wary that, as vice president, Ryan’s conservative fiscal notoriety may even be used at times to placate them, freeing a Romney administration from the internal pressures of an ever more small-government ideology on the right.

The selection of Paul Ryan as Romney’s vice presidential candidate introduces an unknown variable into the campaign’s platform. On the campaign trail as well as in a Romney White House, Ryan offers a great deal of both pros and cons. He is at times a proud defender of individual rights and, at other times, somewhat bafflingly diverges from that persona at the very moment when it is desperately needed. Unfortunately, however, there are few in government today about whom one could say much better. In that sense, with the knowledge that decisions are not to be judged with reference to unavailable or impossible options, perhaps Romney’s selection of Ryan is a solid choice in an imperfect modern world of politics. It may well be that Ryan is a sign of the times and the state of the modern Right. Many of his inconsistencies are the same as those of many Tea Partiers today who cry for small government, yet who cling to outdated allegiances to entitlement programs and regulation, who support the existence of welfare programs so long as they come with work requirements, and who read works such as Atlas Shrugged and The Road to Serfdom, yet who come away with a simple majority understanding of their meaning. As politics is the final consequence of a long chain of philosophical premises, resting on a volume of metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical premises, so a candidate is the embodiment of the current philosophy of his party. For the ways in which they are pleased with his selection, they should feel pride. To the extent that they are disillusioned or dissatisfied with him, they should turn critically to their own principles, scrutinize them, and ensure that they are being applied fully and rationally. It is by this process that any movement ensures that it is striving continually forward in pursuit of its own ideals. As the figures are finally in place and the final stretch of the election year underway, with many important elections to be held across the country in addition to the race for the presidency, we turn to those who would quickly and dismissively deride Paul Ryan for his numerous ideological inconsistencies with a word of caution: be prudent and cautious in critiquing this man’s errors– they may well be your own.

¹Letter to Abigail Adams, December 19, 1793


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