Opinions - 27.08.2012 - 00:00 

A Campaign of ideas

How does Representative Paul Ryan as the Vice Presidential pick mean for the US Elections? Will Ryan joining the ticket change the debate? A comment by Professor James W. Davis.
Source: HSG Newsroom


29 August 2012.  The first presidential decision of any candidate for the highest office in the land is the choice of a vice presidential running mate. Unlike the nominee for President of the United States, the vice presidential choice need not have been subjected to the grueling test of the primaries. In fact, he or she may never have been a candidate for elective office—local, state or federal—and hence is often an unknown quantity. Whereas the parties’ presidential nominee reflects the considered choice of millions of Americans, in the end, the vice presidential candidate reflects the judgment of just one person.

The telling choice
In 2008, Senator John McCain failed his first test of Presidential leadership by choosing Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to be his vice presidential running mate. Although her populist plain talking rhetoric mobilized the Republican base of nativist conservatives—the forerunners of the Tea Party movement—nobody considered her ready for the national stage. And the thought of her moving into the White House in the event that a McCain presidency were for some reason cut short was too much for even committed conservatives to contemplate, as none less than former Vice President Dick Cheney recently admitted. In the end, choosing Palin probably cost McCain as many, if not more, votes than he gained.

By contrast, in choosing Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan to be his vice presidential running mate, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney clearly passed his first test of presidential leadership. Of course it is too soon to tell whether Ryan, also a darling of the Tea Party, will deliver any votes that Romney would not receive in any case, but the choice of Ryan has already transformed what was turning into one of the most boring campaigns of recent memory into a battle over ideas: big ideas. And when campaigns force voters to engage with big ideas, everyone wins.

Changing the conversation

To the extent that Sarah Palin appealed to voters it was because she had an intuitive sense of the fears and anger of working and middle class Americans who sense that their future in a globalized economy is insecure. And she was able to direct those negative emotions toward a real or imagined intellectual and cosmopolitan elite she often accused of being “un-American.”

Steeped in the writings of conservative thinkers such as the Russian émigré philosopher Ayn Rand, Austrian economists such as Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek, as well as the American economist Milton Friedman, Ryan is neither xenophobic nor hostile to intellectuals. And it is his commitment to the strong individualism and the free market common to the writings of these thinkers that leads him to promote a radically reduced role for the state in the lives of individual citizens. As Chairman of the Budget Committee in the House of Representative and author of the Republican Party’s alternative to the large federal budgets proposed by President Barack Obama for 2012 and 2013, Ryan has called for large tax and spending cuts. Medicare, the federal program providing medical insurance for retirees, would be phased out. In its place, senior citizens would be provided with a voucher, which they could apply toward the purchase of private medical insurance.

Seeking a serious debate
There is a serious debate to be had about how to close the potentially catastrophic budget deficit and the related question of the proper role of the state in the lives of individuals. Is individual liberty always guaranteed by a small and unobtrusive state? Or does the state need to provide an equal playing field so that everyone, regardless of background, can exercise their liberties? Moreover, it is by no means clear that the sorts of market solutions favored by Congressman Ryan are always preferable to government programs. After all, the economic theory of the state presupposes important areas of market failure and at least some of the responsibility for the current economic and financial crisis can be attributed to a long period of government deregulation.

Prior to the announcement of Paul Ryan’s addition to the Republican ticket, it looked like the candidates would avoid a serious debate of the issues in favor of personal attacks on their opponent. If we are lucky, the discussion will now turn from who the candidates are to what they believe.

Picture: Photocase / 5386765