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Mobilizing the base

Spencer Kimball August 22, 2012

In an era of deep partisanship in the US, Mitt Romney has chosen rising conservative star Paul Ryan as his running mate. Romney is hoping that the party base can deliver him with the White House.

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney and U.S. Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) walk with Ryan's daughter Liza to the Romney campaign bus after Ryan was introduced as the vice-presidential running mate during a campaign event at the battleship USS Wisconsin in Norfolk, Virginia August 11, 2012. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS)
Image: Reuters

With the Republican Party convention in Tampa, Florida less than a week away, presumed presidential candidate Mitt Romney has sought to unite a party badly bruised during a brutal primary process by selecting conservative icon Paul Ryan as his running mate.

"The old Romney was a moderate centrist Republican who would not have liked a Paul Ryan type figure," Darrell West, an expert on US domestic politics at the Brookings Institute in Washington D.C., told DW.

"But the political landscape has changed dramatically and Romney has concluded that he has to move to the right to win this election," West said. "The new Romney is much more conservative than the old Romney was."

Republican presidential candidates Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, left, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, second from right, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, right, watch as former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks during a Republican presidential debate Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012, in Mesa, Ariz. (Foto:Jae C. Hong/AP/dapd)
Romney's primary competitors had more conservative appeal, but lacked the organizationImage: AP

According to Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, although Romney's rightward pivot has electrified the Republican Party, it carries serious pitfalls that could alienate him with centrist voters in November.

"Given that Ryan represents a much more hard-edged kind of conservatism on social issues as well as on economic issues, it is a gamble - a very large gamble," Ornstein told DW.

Polarized America

The United States has reached a historic level of political polarization, according to a survey released by the Pew Research Center in June. Pew reports that the divide between Republicans and Democrats has reached its largest spread since the survey began in 1987.

Broken down in numbers, the overall partisan divide has nearly doubled from 10 percent in 1987 to 18 percent in 2012. The largest division between Republicans and Democrats centers on the role of government and the social safety net in American society, with some 35 points separating the two sides.

The two political parties themselves have also changed, according to Pew. Self-professed conservative Republicans currently outnumber moderates or liberals in the party by a two-to-one ratio. Democrats, meanwhile, have seen the number of self-professed liberals reach near parity with the party moderates over the past decade. In the past, moderate Democrats outnumbered liberals two-to-one.

Reconciling the base

Congressman Ryan's political rise within the Republican Party is tied to these partisan trends. Elected as a congressman from the Midwestern state of Wisconsin in 1998, Ryan was a respected intellectual in conservative circles but had virtually no national political profile until recently.

Riding a wave of conservative energy generated by the Tea Party movement, some 69 Republicans won Democratic seats during the 2010 midterm elections. Ryan's long-held beliefs in fiscal consolidation and entitlement reform, once politically radioactive, were carried into the new political mainstream created by the Tea Party. With Republicans in control of the House of Representatives, he was given a platform to promote his views as chairman of the House Budget Committee.

Tea Party supporter Bob Wetterau, sitting, and Cecil Hankins, a supporter of President Barack Obama's health plan, right, demonstrate before the arrival of President Obama at Arcadia University in Glenside, Pa. Monday, March 8, 2010.
Political divisions over the role of the state are as deep as everImage: AP

"If you stick to a particular program, to a particular plan and you work at it, it may take you years, but … at some point hopefully history is going to come along and provide you with an event which enables your views and ideas and philosophy to be generally accepted and adopted," Lee Edwards, a historian of the American conservative movement at the Heritage Foundation, told DW.

Romney the moderate was now in the minority of the Republican Party. Met with cool skepticism by the Tea Party movement due to his support of health care reform in Massachusetts, the former governor chose a vice presidential candidate that could energize his campaign in a polarized political landscape.

"Conservative critics suggested Romney did not have enough substance in his campaign and that he was not laying out a very detailed tax or budget policy," West said. "So putting Ryan on the ticket answers those questions and satisfies conservatives that Romney intends to govern in a very conservative direction."

Ornstein believes that Romney may be taking a page from former president George W. Bush's senior advisor and campaign manager, Karl Rove.

"What you see here is partly what we saw with the Karl Rove strategy in 2004, which is you've got a highly polarized electorate and you focus your energies on turning out your base and suppressing the other side's base and you can win in a close election," Ornstein said.

'The Path to Prosperity'

The core of Ryan's conservative appeal is his budget plan, called "The Path to Prosperity." A variation on previous proposals, Ryan's plan would make sweeping structural changes to America's public health care programs for the poor and elderly - Medicaid and Medicare.

Medicaid would be essentially eliminated at the federal level, with the 50 states being given block grants to construct local programs. Under his proposal for Medicare, seniors could choose the current system of public benefits or opt for a voucher system in which they would get money back to buy private insurance. The Republican-controlled House passed the Ryan budget on a largely partisan vote of 235 to 193 on April 5, 2011.

The stated goal of Ryan's proposal, which also included tax reform and caps on discretionary spending, is to put the United States on a more sustainable fiscal course by shrinking the size of government through cuts in public spending. In January 2011, Ryan delivered the Republican Party's rebuttal to President Obama's State of the Union address, arguing that America was at a "tipping point."

"Just take a look at what is happening to Greece, Ireland the United Kingdom and other nations in Europe," Ryan told American viewers. "They didn't act soon enough and now their governments have been forced to impose painful austerity measures, large benefit cuts to seniors and huge tax increases on everybody. Their day of reckoning has arrived; ours is around the corner. That's why we have to act now."

Sacred cows

Ryan's selection as the Republican vice presidential candidate ties Romney to "The Path to Prosperity" and the congressman's vision of America's future. The major entitlement programs have long been treated as sacred cows in American politics, with discussion of radical structural change considered a bridge too far even for Republicans.

Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan listens during a campaign event at Monterey Mills in Janesville, Wisconsin, in this June 18, 2012 file photo.
Ryan has quickly risen to the top of the Republican PartyImage: Reuters

"The conventional wisdom among political long-timers is you can't touch these issues, everybody will hate you if you do - the Democrats will demagogue this," Michael Barone, a conservative political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, told DW.

But according the pollster Gallup, a plurality of Americans - some 40 percent - currently identify themselves as conservatives, compared to 35 percent self-identifying as moderates and 21 percent as liberals. The Pew Research Center reports that while 59 percent of political independents believe the government should help the needy, only 39 percent support expanded assistance for the poor "even if it means additional debt."

"If the Republicans are successful in this election, they're going to seek to make major changes," Barone said. "They're going to be in a good position because they'll have a mandate to do so because they campaigned in the face of conventional wisdom."