The Drum Online

By David Smith

Mitt Romney's selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate makes little difference to his chances of winning the election, and this would have been true of any of the available vice presidential candidates.

However, the Ryan pick will make Romney's life a lot easier if he actually wins the election, which is still a strong possibility even if he is the underdog.

Ryan, who currently chairs the House Budget Committee, is best known as the author of a series of budget proposals to cut taxes and federal government spending on such big-ticket items as Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid. He is highly regarded among both Congressional Republicans and conservative activists for his seriousness on dealing with what they call "entitlement reform."

Because nearly all Republican Congressmen have pledged never to raise taxes they are forced to look for cuts in popular government programs (like Medicare) to tackle the ever-widening deficit, which they regard as an existential threat to the United States. Ryan is the only mainstream Republican politician who has offered any kind of plan for cutting down a central pillar of government spending.

To conservatives this makes him a politically courageous problem-solver. To progressives it makes him a dangerous ideologue who would shred the social safety net to preserve low taxes for the rich.

Conservative activists who reluctantly accepted Romney as their candidate have fantasised that as president, Romney would just implement Paul Ryan's budget plans - in the words of anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, "we just need a President to sign this stuff."

By choosing Ryan as his running mate Romney seems to be signalling that this is how he would govern. But the reality is messier and less comforting for conservatives than that. In the Romney White House, Ryan would not be the policy designer-in-chief as much as the top salesman for Romney's policies.

As Barack Obama discovered, it is difficult for a president to carry out his plans even when his party controls both houses of Congress, which may be the case for Romney if he can pull off a win in November. The US president deals not with a loyal, disciplined legislative party but with an unruly mass of Congressmen who all have their own elections to win and their own deals to make. If Romney fails to deliver sufficiently hard-line conservative policies he will face a revolt from Congressmen who have to fight Primary challenges from the right.

With Paul Ryan as vice-president, a Republican Congress will be much more prepared to go along with a policy agenda that will inevitably be compromised by the need for re-election in 2016. No matter how much Romney waters Ryan's policies down - budget cuts will become shallower, major reforms will be delayed - Congress will trust that it is part of a long-term strategy to achieve conservative aims. And perhaps most importantly Ryan himself will be in the White House and forced to defend it, rather than the potential leader of a conservative attack from Congress.

Romney's campaign has already said that he will not simply adopt the Ryan budget, and that there are differences between the two on issues such as Medicare. Ryan for his part has already softened his budget once for reasons of political expediency. His original plan in 2010 proposed a voucher system for Medicare and the abolition of capital gains tax (which would have reduced Romney's 2011 tax bill to less than 1 per cent). The version recently passed by the House reduces the top marginal tax rate to 25 per cent and allows Medicare to compete with government-subsidised private plans in the healthcare market for seniors. Republicans argue this is the only way to make Medicare solvent for future generations in the face of rising healthcare costs.

Democrats claim Ryan's numbers don't add up, and his "reform" of Medicare really amounts to letting the elderly fend for themselves in the marketplace with minimal government support. If this line of attack is successful it presents serious problems for Republicans, who risk a backlash from the senior citizens who are the most politically active section of the electorate. However, Ryan has tried to offset the political costs by promising it will not affect any current Medicare beneficiaries or anyone eligible for Medicare benefits in the next 10 years.

Ryan will fire up activists on both sides and will probably cause a flood of donations to both candidates. It is unlikely he will affect the votes of most ordinary Americans, whose minds are largely made up. Not even the polarising figure of Sarah Palin affected the 2008 race very much, and Ryan will not provide the kind of spectacle that she did.

Instead the Ryan pick shows that Romney still believes he can win, and if he wins, he wants to be able to govern.