Neil Macdonald: Romney's running mate, definitely no Sarah Palin

The Republican's vice-presidential nominee, Paul Ryan, is one of those precious rarities in modern politics, Neil Macdonald says, a muscular intellectual willing to tell voters ugly truths about the state of their nation.

For the second election in a row, the Republicans will have a vice-presidential candidate who's far more interesting than the man running for the top job.

In 2008, John McCain chose Sarah Palin, the telegenic, Christian conservative intellectual lightweight whose unblinking vacuity made her the object of fascination worldwide.

She immediately eclipsed McCain, to an extent that even a majority of Republicans would likely now concede it was foolish to have picked her.

This time around, Mitt Romney has made just as radical a choice, for more or less the same reason.

Republican hard-liners harbour even more contempt for Romney than they did for the man they called "McLame" four years ago.

Both men have a history of political moderation, something now considered heresy by a thick strata of rigid conservative activists. (And unlike McCain, Romney has no military credentials on his shoulders.)

Romney is also widely regarded as terminally dull, and he's running against a president whom even the arch-conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer describes as not just more likeable but "immeasurably cooler."

All of which left Romney needing to energize his party, urgently. His choice, though, was very much the un-Palin.

Congressman Paul Ryan, may be, as Romney himself puts it, "severely conservative."

But he is also one of those ever-more-precious rarities in modern politics: a muscular intellectual willing to tell voters ugly truths about the state of their nation.

A real reformer

While Romney spent the last few years spouting bland platitudes, avoiding policy specifics and reciting lines from America the Beautiful, Ryan, the chairman of the House budget committee, was crafting a fiscal plan that actually started the "adult conversation" senior Republican leaders admitted the country needed but were too craven to begin themselves.

A man with a plan. Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan is introduced as Mitt Romney's running mate at a campaign event Saturday in Norfolk, Va. (Jason Reed / Reuters)

For conservatives, the most thrilling part of Ryan's plan is its tax cuts.

He promises lower rates in a country where income tax rates are already the lowest in the Western world.

But Ryan goes much further.

Unlike the many faux fiscal conservatives out there, he doesn't pretend that cutting taxes spurs such wild economic growth that spending cuts aren't necessary too.

In fact, what he proposes would be the most radical reduction in government that living Americans have ever seen.

This is not a man willing to borrow endlessly to make up the difference, as were George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, two other famous tax cutters.

Ryan is cut from the more honest cloth of politicians such as Preston Manning, the courtly former leader of the Reform party who rode into Ottawa from Alberta in the early 1990s and transformed Canadian politics.

Brutally simple

Manning's fiscal plan during the 1997 federal election was brutally simple. He intended to balance Ottawa's books by simply eliminating entire departments of the federal government.

You might not have agreed with him, and as it turned out, most Canadians didn't. But you couldn't deny that his numbers added up. It was an honest, transparent plan.

As is Paul Ryan's.

Ryan would, over time, replace Medicare, the public health program that provides virtually unlimited medical coverage for Americans over the age of 65.

Beginning in 2023, his plan would have the government give seniors vouchers, leaving them to pay for anything beyond the most basic care themselves.

He would also take a chainsaw to Medicaid, the federally run program that provides health care to indigent Americans.

And he would reduce the rest of government drastically. "Draconian" is a term often associated with his plan.

Even at that, Ryan's plan would not balance the national books until sometime in the mid-2020s, such is his zeal for cutting taxes.

He has said he would eliminate tax breaks for the better off but he's been reluctant to say exactly which ones. It's pretty obvious, though, that some big public favourites, like the wildly popular mortgage-interest deduction, would probably have to go to meet the debt-reduction numbers he talks about.

You have to admire politicians like Ryan. They do their homework, and by spurning weasel words they greatly clarify the debate.

And that, of course, is Romney's great gamble.

The ballot question

The reason Romney, like so many other politicians of whatever stripe, are so mealy-mouthed about economic solutions is that they understand the hypocrisy of their electorates.

Americans like to see themselves as a nation of rugged individualists, but they are just as addicted to government spending programs as Canadians, and Europeans for that matter.

The simpletons who show up at Tea Party rallies warning Barack Obama to "keep his government hands off their Social Security" are perfect examples.

They proclaim themselves dedicated to spending cuts, as long as the government doesn't take away any of their entitlements, or cut the military, which of course accounts for most government spending.

Farmers demand that government "get off their backs," then serenely collect the big agricultural subsidies so zealously defended by their elected, often Republican politicians.

Jobless Americans look to government for unemployment benefits and extensions of those benefits when they run out.

Most people depend on the government to backstop their mortgages. And of course, Medicare, with its ballooning costs, has been a big political untouchable.

The fact is, you need more health care as you age, whatever your ideology. And a life-threatening illness tends to tame any hard-line view about "socialistic medicine." There are no atheists in foxholes, as the saying goes.

Nonetheless, with Paul Ryan on the Republican ticket, that long-awaited adult conversation may actually get underway.

Certainly, Romney has clarified the ballot question: Are Americans so dedicated to small government and lower taxes that they are willing to sacrifice their entitlements?

History would suggest otherwise. But we shall see.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.