Can Paul Ryan help put ‘Mitt The Twit’ in the White House?
He catches catfish in his bare hands, hunts deer with a bow and turns them into homemade sausages, and boasts that his ruthless workout programme has left him with just 6 per cent body fat. Little wonder that, after the phrase ‘vice-president’, the most popular word added to Google searches for ‘Paul Ryan’ is ‘shirtless’.
His brain packs a punch, too: a budgetary whizzkid, Ryan has galvanised the American Right with bold ideas that may yet save the U.S. from hurtling off the fiscal cliff.
Now he’s stepping into shoes last occupied by Sarah Palin as the Republican vice-presidential nominee. In doing so, he has electrified the race to the White House, which up to this point had threatened to be a tediously negative slugging match between an ineffectual President and his robotic challenger Mitt Romney – or ‘Mitt the Twit’, as he has been dubbed since his gaffe-prone visit to the UK last month.
Suddenly, everything has changed. In the four days since Romney catapulted Paul Ryan, a 42-year-old Wisconsin congressman, into the limelight by naming him as his running mate, Americans have been gushing over Ryan’s toned 6ft 2in physique and manly leisure pursuits. For while Romney is possibly the most boring – and most cautious – man who has run for the White House in decades, his running mate is neither. He’s certainly a bold choice, but unlike the last maverick Republican ‘VP’ nominee – Sarah Palin – Ryan could never be faulted for not knowing his brief.
While most American politicians love to gloss over the policy details, the determinedly Right-wing Ryan delights in spelling out exactly what he wants to do.
Leaving aside his plans for government (basically, squeeze hard and keep squeezing until the massive budget deficit is eradicated), Ryan isn’t afraid to lecture other countries, either. Just days after billions watched the London Olympics opening ceremony tribute to the NHS, he attacked the British health service for making patients too dependent on government help.
Using the system in this country to attack Obama’s ‘socialist’ healthcare reforms, Ryan wrote: ‘Once a large number of citizens get their healthcare from the state, it dramatically alters their attachment to government.’ In other words, the more we lean on the government for help, the less self- reliant we become, and the more opposed to cuts in a bloated state budget.
It is something no Tory politician in Britain would dare to say, but Ryan – who last year warned that the UK faced its day of economic reckoning along with Greece and Ireland – is not one to worry too much about saying things just to please the entire electorate. Ryan remains a pin-up and seer of the Tea Party movement, that populist groundswell of American anger against big government spending. It’s not hard to see why the Tea Partiers love him. His life story lives and breathes old American values of hard work and self-sufficiency. A devout Roman Catholic and pro-lifer, he had a down-to-earth Midwestern background in the working-class Wisconsin town of Janesville, where he still lives with his lawyer wife Janna and three young children, Liza, Charlie and Sam.
Paul himself was the youngest child of Elizabeth and Paul Ryan (Ryan senior was a lawyer, too).Friends and relatives say Paul Jnr was deeply affected when at 16, he found his father dead in bed after a heart attack – an experience which forced him to grow up early.
At high school, as well as being a keen skier and a big fan of Led Zeppelin, he played Clark Gable in the school’s 1988 Gone With The Wind-themed prom, and was voted prom king. He saved up by working at McDonald’s to pay for his university education in Ohio, where he developed his hard-Right views on economics, and became a devotee of libertarian writer and thinker Ayn Rand.
Through influential books such as her epic novel Atlas Shrugged, Rand – who died in 1982 – espoused a laissez-faire creed she called Objectivism which held that the moral purpose of life is to pursue one’s own happiness, and that government interference should be kept to an absolute minimum.
When he was not formulating his political philosophy, Ryan spent his summers prosaically working for the processed meat company Oscar Meyer, driving around in one of its Wienermobiles, a trademark car shaped liked a hot dog in a bun.
Ryan was working as a marketing consultant for his family’s construction business when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1998 – at 28, its second-youngest member.
He became the top Republican on the House budget committee in 2006, impressing colleagues with his effortless grasp of fiscal detail. But it wasn’t until January 2010 that he made headlines when he unveiled an ambitious U.S. budget plan he called Roadmap For America’s Future.
Hugely controversial, it is a grand plan to balance the U.S. budget – mission impossible as far as most of Washington is concerned – by 2040. It involves slashing spending on food subsidies for the poor, and limiting Medicare health provision for older people, as well as cutting tax rates for the wealthy – to encourage wealth creation.
The Congressional Budget Office says the plan would savage virtually every government programme apart from social security, health care and the armed forces. Yet many conservatives remain supportive of it – nobody else in Washington is saying how they will tackle America’s terrifying $16?trillion debt.
Drastic problems call for drastic solutions, and even some liberals privately admire the fact that Ryan is at least trying.
But he’s no ranting prophet of doom. In Washington, he has a reputation as affable, polite and charming – a man who loves to debate policy with his opponents without slinging insults (a rarity in U.S. politics nowadays). He prefers to direct his aggressive instincts instead towards the wildlife population.
An inveterate hunter and fisherman – he proposed to his wife at one of his favourite fishing spots – Ryan fills his Facebook page with pictures of him posing with dead deer and turkeys, all killed by him, sometimes with a rifle and sometimes with a bow.
He’s also an avid catfish ‘noodler’, a technique that calls for consummate patience and speed as the fisherman plucks the creatures out of the water with his bare hands. To be fair, he’s also tough on himself. The deaths of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather at relatively early ages left him obsessed with physical fitness.
For the past four years, Ryan has started every day but Sunday with the supremely brutal P90X workout. The programme, whose devotees include singer Sheryl Crow, bills itself as ‘extreme home fitness’ and combines intensive cardiovascular exercises with yoga, karate and other physical trials for 60 to 90 minutes a day. Ryan boasts that he often leads a dozen or so other masochistic congressmen in a P90X workout in the House of Representatives gym.
When Mitt Romney accidentally introduced his new running mate at the weekend, as the ‘next president of the United States’ he may have been right.
If Obama wins this November’s presidential election – as he well might given his opponent’s dismal appeal with voters despite the dire economy – that could set the youthful Ryan on the road to win the White House in 2016.
The strength of his appeal has been evident in the way the Obama camp and its media allies are already gunning for him, painting the congressman as what Obama strategist David Axelrod called a ‘certifiable Right-wing ideologue’. In an effort to scare voters away from him, one Left-wing group has just released a spoof video of an actor purporting to be Ryan pushing a wheelchair-bound grandmother off a cliff.
Attention is bound to focus on his implacable opposition to abortion as much as spending cuts that would leave the average pensioner £3,800 a year out of pocket.
Yes, Romney’s choice of Ryan may be risky in terms of the radical conservatism of his views, yet the Catholic Ryan will also reassure voters who see Romney’s Mormonism, his career as a multi-millionaire venture capitalist and haughty, elitist image as far removed from their lives and values, particularly evangelist Christians who viewthe Mormon religion with deep suspicion.
Solidly middle-class, a good speaker and – for all his hard-edged politics – a normal kind of guy, Ryan crucially ticks the boxes that Romney has failed to.
The next few months will reveal whether Romney’s bold choice is a little too bold for the swing voters who are likely to decide the outcome of this election. But at least Republicans can be sure their own supporters will now overcome their apathy over Mitt Romney.
With this plain-speaking Mid-Westerner at his side, he suddenly looks a whole lot more interesting.
© Daily Mail, London
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