Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Good News for Voters? The Paul Ryan Effect

Timothy Sherratt


August 24, 2012

By Timothy Sherratt

Writing in The New Yorker recently, Ryan Lizza declared the choice of Congressman Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s running mate “good news for voters. “ It was good news because Paul Ryan advocates for presidential campaigns that offer, in his own words, “a full-throated defense for an alternative agenda that fixes the country’s problems.”

I won’t quarrel with Lizza’s verdict, but I would like to amend it.

No one would contradict the evidence of sharp differences between the libertarian wing of the Republican Party and the Democrats’ progressive wing. Indeed, each wing has come to define its respective bird. Much of the caustic rhetoric from the campaigns and from the Super PACs (political action committees) seems designed to confirm the irreconcilability of right and left, red and blue.

The presidential candidates are playing along, despite a discernible reluctance. While President Barack Obama is more of a statist, and Governor Mitt Romney embraces a pragmatic libertarianism, both are centrists.

Romney’s centrism is tied to management. From the Salt Lake City Olympics, to finishing off Gingrich, Santorum and Paul in the primaries, to running a campaign focused on the state of the economy, the Romney style is to manage. If it is necessary to move to the right to validate social conservatism, he does so. If a strategy delivers poor poll results, he is ready to tweak it.  

President Obama’s style is the centrism of the policy wonk, not the conviction of the visionary. Issues intrigue him, and yet they quickly lose that luster. Witness his unenthusiastic defense of the Affordable Care Act as the Republicans turned up the heat. The President seemed genuinely baffled by an opposition that framed the issue as a do-or-die battle for the soul of the American way of life.

Romney’s main campaign strategy to date has been to encourage the American electorate to punish the President for the country’s poor economic performance. By default, the electorate would then reward Romney with victory. Notice that philosophical differences do not come into it, just reward and punishment.

When this approach yielded poor results in the polls, Romney chose Ryan and offered the voters the clear alternatives Ryan Lizza applauds. In doing so, Romney energized the libertarian, tea party base. But I do not think his move represents a philosophical change of heart away from centrist pragmatism. The manager manages, trying a new strategy and hoping to contain its costs as he realizes its benefits.

For several reasons, I suspect that Governor Romney may not succeed in controlling his new strategy. Congressman Ryan is a libertarian who has charted a rapid rise through party ranks with his distinctive brand of policy medicine for what ails America. He has already given to the campaign’s central theme—short-term economic performance—a long-term perspective, and a stern and moralistic one at that.

Ryan is also a Roman Catholic, unafraid to appeal to his tradition’s sophisticated social teaching in defense of his insistence that America must live within its means. As a Catholic he also takes an uncompromising pro-life position against legalized abortion. Ryan cosponsored a bill in 2011 to restrict the use of federal dollars to pay for abortions. The recent Todd Akin debacle in Missouri has already tied Akin to Ryan and thus, whether he likes it or not, to Romney.

At its best, the choice of Ryan will place philosophically grounded, clear choices squarely in front of voters this fall—good news for voters indeed. But writers of recent commentaries at this site have drawn attention to the darker side of clear choices—personal attacks, fear mongering, exaggerated polarization and worse. To promote the former and suppress the latter, Christians must be part of a vigilant citizenry that rejects campaign business as usual.

—Timothy Sherratt is Professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, MA.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”