Mitt Romney’s pick of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate Saturday brings clarity to the stark election-year choice for voters — the competing Democratic and GOP visions about the size and role of the federal government in Americans’ lives.
Ryan is synonymous with his revolutionary budget, which would slash spending for safety-net programs for the poor, remake Medicare and cut personal and corporate taxes while pushing the deficit down to a manageable level. It would turn the tea-party dream of a scaled-back, less involved government into hard-core reality.
“America is more than just a place … it’s an idea. It’s the only country founded on an idea,” Ryan said Saturday in Virginia as Romney introduced his vice presidential choice. “Our rights come from nature and God, not government. We promise equal opportunity, not equal outcomes.”
With the USS Wisconsin providing a bunting-draped backdrop, Ryan declared to a flag-waving crowd at a naval museum in Norfolk, Va., that the country was “a nation facing debt, doubt and despair” and that a transformative change in leadership was vital.
“Regrettably, President Obama has become part of the problem … and Mitt Romney is the solution,” said the seven-term lawmaker, who at 42 is a generation younger than Romney, 65. Ryan is chairman of the House Budget Committee, the chief architect of deeply controversial budget plans and widely viewed by Republican lawmakers as an intellectual leader within the party.
The two Republican running mates basked in the cheers of supporters in a made-for-television debut of a ticket hoping to make Obama’s first term his last. “I did not make a mistake with this guy,” Romney exulted.
Romney declared that in the campaign to come, Republicans will present economic solutions “that are bold, specific and achievable. … We offer our commitment to help create 12 million new jobs and to bring better take-home pay to middle-class families.”
The party establishment, rank-and-file conservatives and tea-party groups all cheered the pick made by Romney, whose own record as a moderate during his term as Massachusetts governor less than a decade ago made his march to the presidential nomination an uneven one.
Barack Obama’s campaign didn’t wait long to respond. It criticized the budget blueprints Ryan has authored, particularly his recommendations to fundamentally remake Medicare and cut $5.3 trillion in government spending over the coming decade.
Obama, who repeatedly talks up the November election as a profound choice for the country, has rejected the Ryan approach as “thinly veiled social Darwinism.” The Democrat and former community organizer says government has enough resources to help the less fortunate.
The Ryan budget, Obama said in April, “is antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity and upward mobility for everybody who’s willing to work for it; a place where prosperity doesn’t trickle down from the top but grows outward from the heart of the middle class.”
Roughly three months before the election, Romney’s choice clearly defines the battle lines and establishes the narrative for the election, one that Republicans and Democrats, liberals and tea partyers will echo in congressional and gubernatorial races. The outcome in November will have far-reaching implications for looming fiscal crises in the year’s final days.
On the grass-roots level, the selection of Ryan energizes a GOP base wary of the Massachusetts governor and architect of the state’s health-insurance program dubbed Romneycare.
Conservatives, from the Wall Street Journal editorial page to the rank and file, had been clamoring in recent days for Ryan. The timing of the announcement came as polls showed Obama with a narrow advantage and the number of undecided voters diminishing, underscoring the need for Romney to act fast.
“It’s absolutely fantastic,” said Sal Russo, a longtime Republican operative and founder of the Tea Party Express, a well-funded wing of the populist movement. “He’s willing to go out there and tackle tough issues. The American people want somebody to make the tough choices.”
Russo said his organization had polled its 17,000 members, and Ryan and freshman Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida were the favorites for the No. 2 spot on the GOP ticket.
The conservative reward of Ryan also carries a significant political risk — and Democrats wasted no time in making it a top talking point.
The Ryan budget would scrap the current Medicare system that the nation’s seniors have enjoyed for decades in favor of a voucher program for those under 55 today. Starting in 10 years, the plan also calls for gradually increasing the Medicare retirement age from 65 to 67.
Democrats immediately sounded the alarm about the implications of changing the popular entitlement program, a warning certain to resonate in battleground states such as Florida, Iowa and Pennsylvania — states with the heaviest concentration of those 65 and over.
“In selecting Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney has crystalized the contrast of this election,” said Rod Smith, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party. “Ryan is the architect of Romney’s extreme budget plan, which would end Medicare as we know it, increasing the health care costs for Florida’s seniors by thousands every year.”
Ryan’s selection as well as Romney’s own nomination will be ratified by delegates to the Republican National Convention, which begins Aug. 27 in Tampa, Fla.
Obama and Vice President Joe Biden will be nominated for a second term at the Democratic convention the following week. The vice president called Ryan on Saturday to congratulate him on his selection, the president’s campaign said.
Republicans say Ryan, a Catholic from Wisconsin who could appeal to blue-collar voters, is an appealing complement to Romney, a Mormon and multimillionaire.
But Ryan has tangled with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and others in the church over his budget, which would cut Medicaid, food stamps, Pell Grants and a host of other programs that directly help the nation’s poor.
Ryan had said the budget is based on Catholic social teaching. But in a letter, the Rev. Thomas J. Reese called that nonsense.
“I am afraid that Chairman Ryan’s budget reflects the values of his favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ,” said Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. “Survival of the fittest may be OK for social Darwinists but not for followers of the gospel of compassion and love.”
Romney insisted Saturday that Ryan was intent on creating opportunities for all Americans.
“Paul is in public life for all the right reasons — not to advance his personal ambitions but to advance the ideals of freedom and justice, and to increase opportunity and prosperity to people of every class and faith, every age and ethnic background,” Romney said.