Mitt Romney has jumped out the blocks early, and announced a vice-presidential running mate — Wisconsin congressman, and congressional budget leader Paul Ryan, a choice that has been met with bemusement, head scratching and an ocean of interpretation. In typical Mitt style, even the innocuous announcement of veep pick was something that Mitt stuffed up — turning to Ryan, he announced him as the “next President of the United States”, which at least offered the possibility of a spectacular Inauguration Day live suicide.
There was little else that was exciting about Ryan as a pick, on the surface — he appeared, clad in the same white shirt as Romney, looking more or less like a young Romney, the exact opposite of the longed-for VP surprise pick, whether it be Walter Mondale’s selection of Geraldine Ferraro in ’84, or John McCain’s recourse to Sarah Palin in 2008.
The sparsity of those choices makes clear a peculiarity of US politics — everyone monitors the veep choice for a great surprise, the surprise is usually there ain’t no surprise. No African-American or Hispanics have ever been chosen for the veep spot, and only one Jew — Joe Lieberman, running as Al Gore’s partner in 2000, and now a hawkish independent, supporting the Republicans on most issues.
For the most part it’s been white guys — the veep choice is usually a more, not less, traditional person than the presidential candidate himself. Ronald Reagan was a former actor some could not take seriously, balanced out by uber-WASP insider George Bush; Michael Dukakis was of Greek heritage, and Lloyd Bentsen all but strolled down the lawn and offered mint juleps y’all. And in 2000, Dick Cheney chose another scion of an old Republican family as his running mate. I can’t even remember who Bob Dole — Jesus, Jack Kemp, Wikipedia just told me. How obscure is that? Finally in 2008, Barack Obama made the wise choice of Joe Biden, who for all his fumbles and gaffes, could go around the north-east labour heartland and say (more diplomatically), the schwartzer’s all right.
So the surprise of Paul Ryan is simply because most pundits expected that Romney would choose someone who would add a bit of, literal, colour to the ticket, and a sense of fire and life. Some thought he might go directly for the religious base, and choose someone like Mike Huckabee; others that he might get a twofer out of Hispanic/Tea Party favourite, Florida senator Marco Rubio. Choosing a woman was unlikely, after the Palin experience — unfair, but there it is — and the only high-profile one was Michele Bachmann, who makes Sarah Palin look like Hannah Arendt.
That they have gone for a square white guy is indicative; that the square white guy in particular is Paul Ryan has many ramifications. To the general white guys choice first. Various commentators have described this as “tepid” and “disappointing”; Noam Scheiber in the New Republic suggests it is an alibi for a loss — Ryan’s profile is highest as leader of the post-2010 GOP Congress extreme budget push, which read more like a synopsis for the Hunger Games than a document of modern governance, and the theory is that the organisational wing of the party is using this as a decisive demonstration to the party’s right that they will be in opposition forever if they don’t move to the centre.
That is mad, and only persuasive if one avoids the nasty truth about the choice of Ryan — as a choice based on race, not Ryan’s but Obama’s. To choose the whitest guy around, and create the whitest guy team in history, is mainlining on the idea that a coterie of independent voters will consciously or otherwise, groove on the idea that they gave the African-American guy a try, and he screwed it up; more in sorrow than in anger, they will conclude that if you want a job done, you get a pair of white managers in. That is unquestionably the semiotics of the veep choice, ugly as it is, and people who don’t want to see that, because they are too enamoured of the ideal of America, rather than the reality, miss its acuteness. True, Romney could have chosen Florida senator Marco Rubio, who, for all his boilerplate right-wing rhetoric, is an impressive man — from a family of Cuban refugees, worked his way up, etc. He had a bit more help than he is willing to admit, but hell, he’s a Senator, an eloquent speaker and a passionate man.
Sadly, to many of the vaguely right-shifted independents the GOP hope to attract, and especially those north of St Louis, that doesn’t matter. When they look at Rubio, they see a busboy. When they see him in a suit, they reach for their valet parking ticket. That’s rough, it’s far from total, but there it is. To have a Latino on the ticket would have muddied the clear distinction between traditional authority, and the prejudices that is calling on. By having a presidential team composed of two men in white shirts, who appear to be modelling white shirts for a catalogue, the Republicans are effectively re-summoning the Einsenhower era, when things worked goddamit, and before the African-American and hippies started burning down the cities. Gimme a goddam Scotch. Make it a double.
By this move, President Obama and his administration become identified with the whole allegedly failed trajectory of the ’60s — Obama becomes identified as the first affirmative action President, and a whole slice of voters are thus relieved of voting against him purely on account of his race — ‘Well, we gave ’em a chance and y’know …”. Who are those voters? Well they’re the voters Joe Biden fielded for Obama in ’08. They’re northern white voters in the rustbelt states. Unionised and leftish in some ways, they are not merely conservative in social matters, but identified with the American project, of greatness. They are the grandchildren of the voters that the Republicans persuaded to switch from Truman to Eisenhower in 1952, and — given the appalling state of American social mobility (worst in the advanced OECD) — they havent moved far. Few of them are vicious racists as one might find in the south, but many have a clannish, collective identity based around white working-class identity — now based largely around the jobs that used to be there, which makes the sense of cultural identity all the keener.These are the folks — in Cleveland, in Columbus, in Des Moines, in Lansing, in Traverse City and a hundred other places — that the Romney-Ryan choice is designed to appeal to. But that “CEO” strategy is not without its risks, and the chief one is that Paul Ryan is a right-wing nutbag, with more loose skin in the game than [deleted name of major Australian actress] after another lipo job.
Ryan, though a Congressman for more than 15 years, is still only 42. He was 19 when the Berlin Wall came down, not yet 30 when William Buckley was more or less ousted from the journal he founded, the National Review, which had sought to bring together social conservatives and economic libertarians, against a common enemy of the left. Buckley had kept this circs together, under the conservative rubric of prudentia — learning from practice is always better than cleaving to an abstract theory.
Trouble was, in the ’90s, it was Clinton and the left who became prudentialists — spruiking globalisation, but preserving a welfare state of sorts, a practice continued by the Bush administrations, even as they pursued an opposite foreign policy. Through the Bush years, the Right — no longer unified by a single enemy — fragmented and detached, and became prey to a series of imaginary ideological obsessions that would explain why a nation, “ordained by God”, would be sliding into a subsidiary place in global leadership. The moderates cleaved to people such as Hayek and Von Mises, complex philosophers of modernity, who by that very token, offered no simple tale of morality and action.
That was provided instead by Ayn Rand, the compelling, kooky, clinically narcissistic amphetamine-addicted novelist-philosopher of the mid-century. Rand’s ideas were essentially magical, and her work, like Kerouac, and most of Tsiolkas, is best read at the age of 17, the mental age at which it was written. Nothing of meaning came from social or collective values — the dynamic individual evolved it from their inner-self, and imposed it on the world. Rand is compelling, but it cannot escape notice that her work drips with resentment, not joy — resentment at the Soviets her family fled, the Hollywood studios who would not hire her as an actress, the intellectual establishment who would not recognise her genius. In the ’60s and ’70s, she became the muse of right-wing resentment, as a radical-left-liberal vision of life transformed social institutions. Malcolm Fraser was an early convert. Rand appeals to lonely hung-up kids, who are too inhibited to spliff up in the student union bar, or join the women’s collective, but want to. I bet Albrechtsen is a big fan.
Rand’s idea of where value comes from is essentially a mirror of Marx’s (and Smith’s, etc) labour theory of value. Marx underestimated the role of entrepreneurship and intellectual labour in general, as a source of value (a fault that Trots of today continue to observe faithfully), Rand gave it total value. Physical labour, social capital, surplus value … these things mean nothing to the Randians. Wealth emerges like Zeus, from the forehead of Croesus.
The brutal irony of this is that Rand’s fantasy can only come to appear persuasive when a country has abandoned actual physical production altogether. A John D Rockefeller or a Carnegie would have agreed with Marx about where value came from — because they were working people to death to get it. Through to the mid-’80s, no one could doubt where most value came from, because there were still lots of US factories churning out stuff people need. Now? Value looks like an app created by some hipster in a Boise Starbucks. In that environment, Rand’s hymn to individualism seems obvious.
It was obvious to Paul Ryan, who says that Ayn Rand’s work was a guiding influence throughout his life. He was too young to know Rand personally, of course — that honour was reserved to Alan Greenspan, who, in letting the dotcom bubble expand and then burst, and then the real-estate/banking bubble burst, has probably done more than any human being alive to wreck American capitalism (and who was known, when he was in Ayn Rand’s circle, as “the undertaker”) — but that makes it all the more compelling. He is a radical not a conservative, and it is no coincidence that mature Randism was conceived in the crucible of early Stalinism — they are mirror doctrines, and they are identical in celebrating pitilessness as the ultimate virtue. When one compares the US Right to Stalin, one gets howled down. True it is not the Stalin of the great terror — but the US health and welfare system condemns literally hundreds of thousands of people to deaths that are early by decades, and lives that are stunted from birth. Per year. Per year. In the richest country in the world.
Ryan’s post-2010 budget was not merely an extension of that, it was a celebration of it. It was a budget that proposed to dis-establish US social spending in toto, and return the US to some mythical homesteading state of the right-wing imagination. The Democrats will use the details of that budget relentlessly, so why would the Republicans pick Paul Ryan? The answer is that everyone has such a contempt for the average American voter, that what someone has done in Congress has no real bearing on the election. This is as true for the Obama side, as for the Republicans. In vain, the Democrats try to point out to voters that the Republicans control Congress to purse strings — and the voters continue to ask why a President, who can visit deaths on distant lands, cannot make jobs in Akron. The Republicans have exploited this view of the Presidency, and will do so throughout the campaign.
Not everyone is fooled by this, of course — millions of Americans pay attention to what is being sold to them, especially in states, such as the north-east, where union membership is strong, and politically astute. They will know what Ryan tried to do, and a massive effort by Obama’s supporters will be focused on reminding them of such. Essentially, the Ryan choice is gambling on the idea that there are more stupid people than smart ones in the swing states.
That gets us to the other point about why Ryan is a good choice, and one that the rent-a-pundits haven’t focused on. The first is that Ryan is a solid Wisconsin congressman, for the first district, which takes in the southern suburbs of Milwaukee. Yes, Laverne and Shirley, sing it, our way, our way, make all our dreams come true, etc … except their Milwaukee is long gone. It’s a hollowed-out city, with a poor northern district, and a southern middle class of people who sell each other health insurance.
But Wisconsin is a split state. In 2008, it elected Obama — and also a Tea Party senator, and in the past year or so, it has been subject to a vicious dispute about union recognition, which the union movement lost. The Republicans will use that as a flag waver across the country — but more importantly, they will use it to bring Wisconsin into play as a swing state.
This is a smart ploy, that has entirely escaped commentators such as Greg Sheridan and Brad Norington in the Oz. Why? Partly because they are already hedging against a Romney loss, but also because, no matter how much you try and — in the manner of a drum machine or a drummer — try to punch the information in, they don’t get it: there is no US election. There are 50 state elections. God knows how many times you have to say this, but people keep thinking the overall vote matters. By and large it doesn’t matter — Romney can bank half a million new notes in New York state, who gives a rat’s? Ditto with Obama in Texas. These states are done deals. Better to win Colorado by a vote, than accumulate two million elsewhere. So, given that, what’s the attraction of Ryan?
There are two. The first is the Wisconsin angle. The state is reasonably solid Democrat, but closer than most. It is the left version of Indiana — with a mix of industry and post-industry, but with a large rural swathe. In Indiana, these are Baptist and pseudo-Amish, whereas Wisconsin is Scandinavian-derived, and Lutheran-Episcopalian-sane — but the pressure of social collapse always drives people to simplistic explanations, and so Wisconsin is moving out of the solid, sane position, and is thus good pickings for a mad GOP.
But most commentators have missed the other angle — and that is Ryan’s religion. He’s a Catholic. Previously that was a problem for the southern Bible belt, but the values war that has reshaped US politics has brought them together. That brings into play one group that almost no one has noticed — Pennsylvania Catholics. The state has a 30% rock-chopper ratio. It is an unlikely gain for Romney, but Republicans have always eyed Pennsylvania as a prize, due to its rural, well, idiocy — James Carville memorably defined it as “Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between” — but that is only half true. Rural Pennsylvania is where the rustbelt meets the Appalachians. It’s towns with Polish churches and wharves full of dead machinery, and it may well be amenable to Ryan’s vision and background.
Ryan’s veep candidacy gives the GOP exactly what I suggested it was seeking in an article several weeks ago — a victory that did not rely on showdowns in swing states. By having Romney as a candidate, it has already softened Michigan, and if it can put Wisconsin into play, it can force the Obama campaign into an expensive and wasteful defence. If it can put Pennsylvania into play — which I don’t think it can — then the Obama push is stretched thin. And if, by any chance, the GOP could win Pennsylvania, then Obama might be on the ropes.
Ryan is, in that sense, a surrogate Rick Santorum in that state — acceptable to the nation, but a coded message to non-Hispanic Catholics. This election may turn on 50,000 votes — or 10,000 — and it is on that basis that the veep choice was made. Will Obama now throw Joe Biden over? Not a chance.
Veep choices never change an election result, the pundits say. Or they did, until 2008, when John McCain, working on his old pilot’s instinct of ready, fire, aim, chose Sarah Palin, and thus stuffed up any rep he had for experience versus innocence against Obama. Ryan, in that sense, is the anti-Palin. He is a good choice for the strategy the Republicans are about to pursue — white-skin racism, linked to global economic change, and despite the hedging of the professional Rightocracy, it may deliver the Presidency.