Sydney Morning Herald

By Tom Switzer

The 2012 US presidential race is beginning to look a lot like Australia's federal poll in 1993: an ''unloseable election'' for the opposition party at a time of widespread public angst and uncertainty about the future.

Go back two decades. Paul Keating was an unpopular leader, who had presided over mountains of debt and the ''recession we had to have''. Australians, armed with baseball bats, were upset about the direction the Labor prime minister was taking their country. The Coalition was odds-on favourite to win.

The Liberal opponent, John Hewson, was an academic economist with a wealth of private-sector experience and sound ideas on how to reform the economy. By proposing a bold agenda called Fightback!, however, the former merchant banker allowed Labor strategists to run the mother of all scare campaigns.

The result: Hewson lost the ''unloseable election'', not over just the goods and services tax but also over his radical and highly detailed policies on deregulation, privatisation, zero tariffs and industrial relations. Those baseball bats were put in storage for another three years. Fast forward 20 years. In the US, the President, Barack Obama, is also campaigning on a flawed record. The unemployment rate is at 8.3 per cent, the debt level is of European proportions, consumer and business confidence are low and the nationalised healthcare is unpopular. All that ''hopey changey stuff'' has not worked out as advertised.

Meanwhile, the Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, is a smart and successful businessman whose innate conservatism makes him suspect in the eyes of the more ideologically conservative base of his party.

By choosing Paul Ryan as his running mate at the weekend, the former venture capitalist has energised the Republican grassroots. But the decision also makes the Wisconsin congressman's radical, wide-ranging reform program, not simply Obama's poor economic record, the major election issue in November.

Just as the Liberal Party's Fightback! agenda allowed Keating to target Hewson, so could Ryan's bold policy blueprint help Obama frighten voters.

That is why left-liberal activists are licking their lips. For months, they recognised that the President's economic record could hurt his re-election prospects. The best hope, Democrats reasoned, was to portray the Republicans as out-of-touch elitists who would strip healthcare coverage for retirees and favour the wealthy at the expense of working families.

Ryan, a 42-year-old Catholic with 14 years of experience in Congress, is a political grown-up who takes ideas seriously. He is the intellectual architect of his party's legislative agenda to end the rent-seeking politics of entrenched interest groups in Washington.

In recent years, Americans have engaged in a vigorous debate over whether the US can downsize government and reform the economy so that the country does not go bankrupt.

But although economic reform ideas may appeal to The Wall Street Journal editorial page and free-market think-tanks, it is doubtful whether a message of fiscal austerity resonates with the broader electorate, especially among independent voters in battleground states such as Ohio, Florida and Colorado.

To tinker with such popular government programs as Medicare and Medicaid is heady stuff: the sort of thing Sir Humphrey, in Yes, Minister, would have described as ''very brave''.

Nor does history bode well for pro-reform conservative candidates and parties. After the 1994 midterm elections, congressional Republicans rode an anti-tax, anti-Washington wave to power. Yet their overreach on various issues, culminating in the government shutdown in 1995, led to widespread public angst and Bill Clinton's remarkable re-election a year later.

US politicians all too often proclaim presidential elections the most important in decades, if not in history. Romney and Obama will apply that superlative to this race. But the Ryan selection suggests that this campaign is more consequential than most: the size and role of the government is at the centre of the debate.

Expect Obama and the Democrats to take a page out of Keating's playbook and run negative attacks. They can't run on their own record, so they will try to portray Romney and Ryan as Monopoly men without top hats and canes.

If Obama wins, as current polls suggest, he would further entrench the role of the state in American life and future candidates will shy away from comprehensive big-picture policy prescriptions.

If Romney and Ryan were to defeat him, as is still possible, it would dramatically alter the nation's relationship to their government. The Hewson experience 20 years ago suggests the Republican ticket faces a tough challenge.