The Republican ticket
The Ryan roadshow
The new vice-presidential candidate fires up the base in Iowa
Aug 18th 2012 | DES MOINES AND OSKALOOSA, IOWA | from the print edition
UNUSUALLY, America is a country founded on an idea, Paul Ryan told crowds at the Iowa State Fair on August 13th, his first solo appearance as vice-presidential running mate to Mitt Romney. Battling hecklers, the young congressman explained further. Because Americans believe their rights come from nature and God, not government, he said, they want a free society that rewards hard work, not a European-style welfare state.
As it happens, Mr Ryan is an unusual vice-presidential candidate because he, too, embodies an idea. Though he holds reliably conservative views on issues from abortion to environmental regulation, his rise to national prominence at the age of just 42 rests on his mastery of one argument: that America faces a debt crisis, caused by a government that taxes and spends too much. Mr Ryan is best known as the author of alternative, radically-smaller, draft federal budgets embraced with fervour by many of his fellow Republicans in the House of Representatives.
The importance of vice-presidential candidates can be (and usually is) overstated. Mostly, their job is to avoid gaffes, attack the other side with a gusto not permitted to presidential candidates, win their home state and look plausible as a spare commander-in-chief. But Mr Ryan offers something more. In an increasingly petty election, his selection introduced a note of rare intellectual clarity. As Mr Ryan put it in Des Moines, Republicans and Democrats are offering Americans a choice of what sort of country they want to be.
On a first showing, the ideas embodied by Mr Ryan appear to reassure Iowa conservatives not always sold on his new boss, Mr Romney. Republicans at the fair voiced relief that Mr Romney had chosen Mr Ryan. The younger man shows “fiscal common sense,” enthused Don Stevenson, a retired farmer. A retired postman, Larry Borchert, added that Mr Ryan’s Roman Catholic beliefs were a “big plus”, easing his concerns about Mr Romney’s Mormon faith, which he called “not Christian”.
Iowa’s economy is in reasonable shape, with unemployment at around 5%, well below the national average. Even a fierce drought that has badly damaged the state’s corn crops has been offset by federally-subsidised crop insurance held by many farmers. In one measure of confidence, sales of luxury outdoor hot-tubs at the state fair were holding up nicely, said a salesman, Jason Rounds, whose firm expects to sell three dozen before the show’s end, at an average of $8,000 each.
Yet a sense of fiscal emergency still hangs over the campaign in Iowa, a frugal spot with the lowest credit-card debt per head of any of the 50 states. When asked for their top issue in this election, most Republican voters cited debts, deficits and the need to slash government spending drastically (Democrats reliably cite the need for more and better jobs).
Press further and Republican grassroots angst about government spending is, a lot of the time, a belief that under Barack Obama, the country has drifted into un-American levels of redistribution from hard-working taxpayers to a more feckless underclass. A long series of Iowa fairgoers talked of welfare recipients sitting at home on handouts, waiting for others to pay for their “laziness”.
On the face of it, Mr Ryan’s big ideas about fiscal discipline place him perfectly to tap into such anger. We ought to stop spending money we don’t have, he told cheering Iowa fairgoers, before repeating a tendentious Romney campaign claim—that new federal rules offering states flexibility as they run welfare-to-work schemes amount to Mr Obama abandoning work requirements first introduced under Bill Clinton. In fact, states will still be required to show that they are pushing those on welfare into employment.
Yet as chairman of the House Budget Committee Mr Ryan has backed his big ideas with detailed plans for reducing spending, involving cuts or radical reforms in such sensitive areas as Medicare (see article). And even in Iowa, too much detail can be dangerous. Farmers queuing for lunch at the state fair’s aptly-named Iowa Pork Tent declared that they wanted the government out of their lives, yet stoutly defended subsidised crop insurance. Others defended taxpayers’ money spent turning corn into ethanol.
Mr Obama showed awareness of such double standards as he carried out his own three-day tour of Iowa, at one point missing Mr Ryan by only a few hours at the fair. As his armoured black bus trundled along rural back roads, it was announced that his government would be buying up to $170m worth of lamb, chicken, pork and catfish to support prices during the current drought. Speaking at a farm museum outside Oskaloosa, the president denounced Mr Romney and Mr Ryan for proposing to end tax breaks for wind power, which employs thousands in Iowa. Mr Obama, too, talked of fixing the nation’s finances. But some of his loudest applause came when he suggested that the richest 2% should pay “a little” more in taxes to that end.
Some evidence suggests that Mr Ryan’s bold ideas make campaign chiefs nervous. In his first outing as a national political figure, Mr Ryan looked like his old self: a sinewy, genial figure who charmed the crowds in a checked shirt, jeans and cowboy boots. But he sounded more like cautious Mr Romney. In his first stab at a stump speech, debt reduction came far down Mr Ryan’s list of talking points, below the need to create more jobs. Swipes at welfare were balanced with promises that America would provide a “safety net” for those in need. He made no mention at all of his signature reform to reshape Medicare into a voucher-based scheme.
Voters are exceptionally worried about government spending. Those worries explain Mr Ryan’s rocket-like rise to the national stage, as well as Mr Obama’s careful nods to fiscal discipline. But if the thrifty swing state of Iowa is anything to go by, those same voters like the idea of other people footing the bill, long before they tighten their own belts. In that, perhaps, this election is not so unusual at all.