WASHINGTON -- Was Mitt Romney choosing his own dangerous version of Sarah Palin when he tapped congressman Paul Ryan for his running mate last weekend, or was he an FDR, moving into uncharted, but potentially winning territory with no apologies?
In short, did he choose someone too far out and too little known or, if the Republicans win, could we be in for a Romney era of political restructuring? For that is what the Ryan program is all about.
First, what we know about the yet elusive Romney: He is a fine family man, a devoted Mormon, a cautious and moderate man in politics, yet a notably liberal-leaning governor in Massachusetts, and a guy who knew how to save the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.
Yet, we still may not know Romney at all. Cautious? Hardly, not if he chose Paul Ryan as his vice presidential candidate. Moderate? Not when he would put radical maverick Ryan, the young Viking from the snows of Wisconsin, in line for the presidency. Actually, as this campaign moves along, revealing formerly hidden personalities and masked ambitions, "radical-in-waiting" might come to be the better word for Romney, if he truly embraces Ryan's thinking.
Second, Paul Ryan himself. He is, by all reports, guileless (the word most often used about him), natural and seamlessly civil. His green-hills-of-Ireland family is an old and respected business family in Janesville, Wis., a town quintessentially American. But his father and his grandfather died young, and Ryan is a man in a hurry.
His politics are unrelentingly far right, teacup-brewed in the broken porcelain of the Republican Party over the past years. He would, for instance, change Medicare to a voucher system, he would privatize Social Security, abolish abortion for any reason and make radical cuts in every entitlement program.
He does not believe in the reality or threat of climate change, apparently believing that 100-plus-degree temperatures all summer, a mysteriously melting Greenland and an Arctic that seems to be moving south are tricks of the Chinese. He was for the Iraq war, for the Afghan war and for the next war -- on the Democrats.
Forgive me a personal note here. What would Vice President Ryan say to a person like me, a non-smoker who worked 50 years, paying for health insurance, who was cancelled by my insurance company when I got cancer?
Why wouldn't Ryan, as President Obama has at least started to do, attack the insurance companies for pushing people like me onto Medicare where your and my taxes pay for me? What would his Catholic faith say to seeing hard-working people like me -- and there are many of us -- whom his policies would leave out on the street because no insurance company will take us?
Then take privatizing Social Security. Social Security is supposed to be the government's assurance of saving for your old age. But if the government guarantee isn't there and you're putting that money into the stock market, just imagine where most of us would have been in 2008 when the markets collapsed -- and probably only Obama's TARP and other government involvement saved us.
In his recent excellent New Yorker profile of Paul Ryan, author Ryan Lizza, who likes Ryan personally, points out that while big companies such as General Motors have abandoned Ryan's hometown, ironically all the new success stories were specialty companies that emerged from Obama's inventive administration. "Independent assessments make clear that Ryan's budget plan, in order to achieve its goals, would drastically reduce the parts of the budget that fund exactly the kinds of projects and research now helping Janesville," Lizza concluded.
Democratic congressman Chris Van Hollen is another on the "other shore" who likes Ryan personally, but who notes that, in all their dealings together in Congress, Ryan has never shown the slightest propensity to work with the Democrats, to compromise or to give in the slightest on his furthest-out policies. He said this week on television that he would not expect that absolutism to change.
Yet, Ryan persists: "Only by taking responsibility for oneself, to the greatest extent possible, can one ever be free," he wrote in his "Roadmap" alternative to Obama's budget, "and only a free person can make responsible choices -- between right and wrong, saving and spending, giving or taking." How intensely different that is from Barack Obama's belief that American citizens should appreciate how their society supports them in whatever endeavor they choose.
In the end, there are two things that worry me about this choice:
-- Paul Ryan never asks anything of the rich. In his programs and policy proposals, it is as if the rich and the privileged do not even exist. Perhaps that would make it too complicated. For they, by all accounts, control billions of dollars that they are NOT investing in America. It seems to me hard for someone to argue that America's budget must be cut drastically and that we desperately need investment, but that the people who control that investment money should not even be reasonably taxed.
-- Mitt Romney, because of his clear record in politics and leadership, had to be considered a moderate in disguise, a man trying to woo the tea party and his confused party, in all its parts. That bit of dissimulation is over. With Ryan at his side as his in-house radical intellectual, even people who like Romney have the right to question: "We like you, Mitt, but who are you really?"