NORFOLK, Virginia, Aug 11 – By choosing Paul Ryan as his running mate, White House hopeful Mitt Romney is gambling on voters wanting a showdown over the nation’s fiscal future and the role of government in American life.
Bucking the conventional wisdom that he would opt for safety over risk and woo independents rather than firing up his base, the Republican flag bearer has chosen a conservative hero who is a lightning rod for controversy.
Ryan, the serious and impassioned fiscal pitbull who has emerged as a star in the House of Representatives over his plan to slash spending, was the choice of many influential conservatives seeking a bold running mate for Romney.
Ryan, a seven-term congressman from the Midwestern state of Wisconsin is a clear Washington insider who at age 42 has already worked on Capitol Hill nearly half his life.
Currently the House Budget Committee chairman, he has led a revolutionary, once-a-generation debate about the direction of the economy.
“America is on the wrong track but Mitt Romney and I will take the right steps, in the right time, to get us back on the right track!” a confident and youthful-looking Ryan told flag-waving supporters after being picked.
With the USS Wisconsin battleship as backdrop, he lambasted the Obama administration for “misguided policies” and said his “record of getting things done in Congress” would complement Romney’s success in the private sector.
“And next January, our economy will begin a comeback with the Romney Plan for a Stronger Middle Class that will lead to more jobs and more take home pay for working Americans,” he said.
His latest remarks echoed earlier statements that reinforced his reputation as a fiscal conservative.
“We are offering the nation a better way forward,” Ryan said in March shortly before the House approved his budget proposal by 228 votes to 191, with all Democrats and 10 Republicans opposed.
The budget, which would cut spending by some $5 trillion over the next decade, has no chance of passing the Democrat-held Senate.
But it frames the Republican position on spending and debt reduction and puts pressure on Democrats over tax and spending issues.
And yet the proposal that Romney has now in practice made his own is packed with political dynamite.
President Barack Obama and his Democrats have painted it as giving tax breaks to millionaires while gutting much-needed federal programs and placing excessive financial pressures on middle-class Americans.
It also includes a plan to semi-privatize Medicare, the government health insurance program.
Many conservatives were pressing for such an explosive pick, someone who would not shy away from engaging in monumental debates.“Mr. Romney’s best chance for victory is to make this a big election over big issues,” the conservative-leaning Wall Street Journal said in an editorial earlier this month.
“Against the advice of every Beltway bedwetter, (Ryan) has put entitlement reform at the centre of the public agenda – before it becomes a crisis that requires savage cuts,” it said.
Ryan was born and raised in Janesville, in Wisconsin’s southeast corner where he still lives with his wife and three children. His family put down roots there four generations ago.
His father died when he was in high school, and the loss turned the young Ryan into an introspective, serious student who held odd jobs, joined the Latin and history clubs and pored over books by conservative icon Ayn Rand.
Ryan evoked his memory Saturday, telling the crowd his father was a “good and decent man.”
In the early 1990s, Ryan worked for a Wisconsin senator, then as a speech writer for revered Republican Jack Kemp, who himself was the vice presidential candidate in 1996.
In 1998, at age 28, Ryan was elected to Congress, and rose quickly in the Republican ranks. By 2004, he set about trying to privatize Social Security, the government safety net for retirees.
While his bid stalled, it presaged the caustic debates over entitlement programs that were to follow.
Ryan, a Catholic, is beloved by core conservatives, and his being on the ticket helps assuage their suspicions about Romney and his policy reversals on issues like abortion and gay rights.
Still, some experts wonder whether Romney is courting the right voters in an election many say will go down to the wire in November.
“Romney’s got to focus on winning over the swing voters in key states, and I don’t think Paul Ryan will help in any way,” said politics professor Alan Abramowitz of Emory University.
There is also concern that picking Ryan plucks him out of the House, where he has enjoyed vast influence moulding the Republican agenda, and places him in a White House where he would have to fall in line with Romney’s pragmatism.