Fiscal hawk Ryan shakes up US presidential race

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has picked Congressman Paul Ryan (pictured left) as his running mate for the November elections. Ryan will likely fire up conservative voters, but may also prove a divisive figure.


Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan is campaigning in the key battleground state of Iowa this week, after presumptive Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney named him as his running mate on August 11. Romney’s campaign has so far been sluggish and Republicans hope Ryan will energize the party’s dash to the November elections.

As a member of the House of Representatives, Ryan, 42, gained visibility last year for his proposal to balance the United States budget by slashing government spending and overhauling cherished social programs. As he joined the race, Ryan unsurprisingly focused on the economy and the country’s deepening debt.

“We need new leadership to become part of the solution, new leadership to restore prosperity, economic growth and jobs,” he told supporters in his first public speech as a vice presidential candidate in Norfolk, Virginia over the weekend. “It is our duty to save the American dream for our children and theirs.”

Ryan was part of a shortlist of potential Republican vice presidential nominees that included Ohio Senator Rob Portman and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty - both of whom were considered safer choices.

Democrats quickly reacted to Ryan’s nomination, with President Barack Obama telling supporters at a fundraising event in Chicago that the young lawmaker was the right-wing’s “ideological leader”.

Critics have blasted Ryan’s blueprint for the budget as one that puts the entire burden of recovery on America’s most vulnerable citizens, especially the poor and the elderly, while sparing the wealthy from new taxes.

“Congressman Ryan is a decent man, he is a family man, he’s an articulate spokesman for governor Romney’s vision. But it’s a vision that I fundamentally disagree with,” Obama, who aims to win a second term in office in the fast-approaching poll, said.

According to Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Ryan is a “high-risk, high-reward” pick for Romney. While Ryan will likely fire up the Republican’s conservative base, his views have at times found detractors within his own camp.

Ryan’s call to drastically reduce both spending and taxes was once branded “right-wing social engineering” by former Republican house speaker Newt Gingrich, who pulled out of the GOP primary in May.

While Romney’s decision to pick Ryan was seen as a bold move, the presidential hopeful was already trying to reassure voters over his agenda. “I have my budget plan,” Romney told CBS television on Sunday. “That's the budget plan we're going to run on.”

Fiscal and social conservative

Ryan lives in Janesville, Wisconsin, the same small city where he was born and went to high school. His personal background made him a dedicated defender of business owners: the Ryan family owns a prosperous earthmoving company, Ryan Inc. Central, which was started by his great-grandfather.

He studied economics and political science in Miami University in Ohio. Although he briefly worked for the family firm, his career has been centred in Washington. Ryan was a congressional staffer and speech writer for conservative lawmakers and interest groups before his successful bid for a congressional seat in 1998, when he was 28-years-old.

Although “Washington bureaucrats” are one of Ryan’s favourite targets, he is serving his seventh term on Capitol Hill. Although fiscal discipline has been his major issue, Ryan, a practicing Catholic and social conservative, has fought against abortion, opposed human embryonic stem cell research and same-sex marriage.

A question of faith

While Ryan’s push for serious belt-tightening earned him wide notoriety during Washington’s stressful debt-limit stalemate last summer, the Wisconsin congressman was championing a reduction in government spending as far back as 2008. First launched as the “Roadmap for America's Future”, Ryan’s plan to divorce the government from its Social Security and Medicare programs - two social safety nets dear to American senior citizens - was not popular with Republicans used to Bush-era spending.

Ryan’s roadmap hit a dead end, picking up just eight co-sponsors in 2008. It was only after the Tea Party movement burst onto America’s political scene in 2010 that Ryan’s vision gained traction.

The policy proposal, renamed the “Path to Prosperity” but broadly known as the “Ryan budget”, sailed through the Republican-controlled House in April 2011, but later died in the Democrat-led Senate. Both the lower and upper houses need to approve a bill before it can become law.

His fiscal charge has gained Ryan admirers in the Tea Party and other conservative circles.. The right-wing weekly magazine Human Events named Ryan 2011’s Conservative of the Year, praising him for pursuing “an agenda of limiting Washington’s control over our private property”.

But many others remain unimpressed by a man who says his Catholic faith motivates his policy making. The US Catholic Bishops have come down hard on Ryan’s plan to limit and slash social programs, and have sent rare letters of warning to Washington.

“Deficit reduction and fiscal responsibility efforts must protect and not undermine the needs of poor and vulnerable people. The proposed cuts to programs in the budget reconciliation fail this basic moral test,” the bishops wrote in a letter to Ryan and his colleagues in May.

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