1998 redux: Romney channels spirit of Gingrich with Ryan but loses election
Fictional White House Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lynam was fond of a poll that showed that 68% of Americans thought foreign aid spending was too high, while only 59% believed it should be cut. “9% of respondents could not fully get their arms around the question”, says writer Aaron Sorkin . “There should be another box you can check for, “I have utterly no idea what you’re talking about. Please, God, don’t ask for my input.”’
This sort of result is familiar to pollsters. Voters hold many contradictory beliefs simultaneously. Saliently, majorities of Americans oppose cuts to every area of public spending, except the foreign aid budget. But at the same time, they believe reducing the federal budget deficit to be the third most important issue facing the US.
This fact was seemingly lost on the Republican party of the 1990s, when Newt Gingrich led the GOP in a petulant legislative campaign against the Clinton administration. Gingrich presided over one of the most ideologically unified Congressional Republican cohorts in the twentieth century. In the 1994 Congressional election, he tied GOP candidates into the Contract with America, a manifesto that included a wide range of right-wing reforms. Spurred on by early successes in 1994, Gingrich ran to the right of public opinion by picking unpopular fights over a Republican budget that increased individual contributions to Medicare, and the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The GOP lost seats in 1996 and 1998, undermining Gingrich’s authority and leading to his resignation.
There’s a clear moral for Romney: Ryan is a terrible choice. Conservatives tout his credentials as the author of Republican fiscal strategy. This document, jokingly entitled ‘The Path to Prosperity’, is eye-wateringly, child-frighteningly conservative. Besides cutting the top tier income tax rate by 10%, it includes absolute reductions in the level of spending on Medicare, and introduces a voucher scheme that would make future cohorts of seniors liable to pay the difference between the value of their vouchers and the cost of their insurance (in short, they pay more).
Those are policies Romney should flee. Medicare is one of the few consensus issues in US politics: it has substantial support from both parties’ voters. Sizable majorities, close to 60% of voters, oppose cuts to it. These days, the US presidential electoral battleground is composed of two equal and opposite partisan blocks comprising around 49% of the population. US Presidential elections get decided by tiny sections of the population. This makes it very unwise to choose to be on the losing side of lopsided fights.
The complexity of Ryan’s healthcare plan doesn’t help, either. It’s easy for opponents to frame complex policies in hostile ways. Sarah Palin told America Obamacare would lead to ‘death panels’ of bureaucrats deciding the fates of loved ones. Dubious claims about the cost of a new electoral system didn’t hurt the No to AV camp in last year’s referendum.
The big cost here is electoral. Medicare benefits the elderly, who comprise significant chunks of the Iowan, Pennsylvanian, and Floridan electorates. George W. Bush and Al Gore spent a disproportionate amount of effort vying to woo senior Floridians in 2000. Spectators of that election could have been forgiven for wondering whether the biggest issue facing America in the new millennium was how to pay for prescriptions for the elderly.
For Romney, it’s all but impossible to win without Florida. Ryan jeopardizes this. Without it, he needs a clean sweep of swing states. And that’s not going to happen. If Obama takes Florida, and all the states in which he currently has a lead of at least 6%, he needs to claim only one additional state to win.
That’s the downside risk from Ryan: that a needless and hopeless policy fight jeopardises Romney’s Presidential bid. But the pick has no real upside. Ryan may put his home state of Wisconsin in play, but it’s unlikely: Obama leads by 5%, and the state has supported Democrat Presidential candidates since 1982. He is, reputedly, clever, and claims to like policy details. This is perhaps belied by the fact that he’s a sometime proselytizer for Ayn Rand, of whom Hilary Putnam once said, ‘she is a philosophizer – I cannot call her a philosopher.’ Admittedly, Ryan has since changed his mind about the merits of her ideology.
So why pick Ryan? Perhaps we’ve finally caught a glimpse of the real Mitt Romney: radically right-wing, borderline libertarian, keen to slash taxes for his fellow quarter-billionaires. Perhaps Mitt is keen to energize the GOP’s doubters, to fire up the activists he sorely needs to demonstrate enthusiasm for his heretofore bland candidacy. Perhaps his campaign team built their candidate a piñata stuffed with miniatures of potential veeps, which, when bludgeoned, yielded a tiny Paul Ryan. Or perhaps, like George McGovern [paywall], he just messed up.Tagged in: america, Mitt Romney, newt gingrich, obama, Paul Ryan, politics, presidential election
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