For those of us who can’t seem to manage to get enthused over certain Olympians running slightly faster than other Olympians (but wish we did – it looks like fun), there are other sources of entertainment in town.
We had a great one last week, with NASA participating alone in the game of trying to place a robot/car/laboratory equipped with a laser gun on another planet using a rocket-powered sky-crane. Beats dressage in my book.
It might have been the highlight of the year, but it lasted only a few minutes for us spectators, and the trickle of scientific data and red landscape photos won’t be able to compete with the biggest – and longest - show in town: the US Presidential Elections.
Picking Paul Ryan as his vice presidential candidate, Romney has injected much-needed energy into the race, as he has steadily been slipping behind in the polls. Portman or Pawlenty wouldn’t have provided much of a bounce.
He had to find a candidate more interesting than himself (despite the unfortunate contrast it will create), but not someone who could trigger even the faintest déjà vu of Sarah Palin. Right wing enough to make that wing happy, but potentially palatable to centrist independents.
Palatable, Ryan is only in appearance. Smart and knowledgeable, sincere and likeable, young and good looking, with a pinch of blue collar credentials, he seems a far cry from the zany primaries, with its cast of crazy eyed, Pokémon-quoting, moon-base-promising, sweater-vest-wearing loonies.
The problem with Ryan is his extreme ideas. As Nate Silver points out, he’s the most ideologically extreme veep candidate since 1900 if not before, including Cheney, his voting record on a par with Michelle Bachmann’s.
His political mentor is Ayn Rand, the darling of Tea Partiers and libertarians, who don’t seem to mind that she was an avowed atheist, had as much empathy as a lump of coal and wrote terrible novels.
The atheism part could be the deal-breaker, but conveniently an interview in The National Review from April this year reveals that Ryan’s long admiration for the objectivist saint is in fact an “urban legend”, re-launches him as a pious Catholic, and – why not - declares the Pope a deficit hawk. Anyone doubting the Christian right’s willingness to overlook this one-degree-of-separation atheism, I refer you to the all but forgotten Mormonism of Romney.
Despite the American obsession with the personal faith of politicians, what really count are his economic policies, and that’s where the true extremism lies. Ryan was the architect of a cost-slashing budget, The Path to Prosperity, based on his Road Map for America's Future, which went so far it was originally believed nothing but a wet dream for über conservatives, unlikely to win over even most Republicans. Newt Gingrich thought Ryan’s plan for Medicare so radical it amounted to “right-wing social engineering”. But then the budget was embraced. This extreme plan, praised by Romney, might now become the unofficial platform for the campaign.
If you wanted to put a positive spin on that, it would be “actual change” – which is both true and scary. In his acceptance speech Ryan painted America as a sombre and dysfunctional place that needed to be taken back to its roots, its core idea, to prosper again; it’s a strain of empty rhetoric with a proven track record. Ryan fills Romney’s idea vacuum, and helps the narrative of their campaign. It now feels like something more than anything-but-Obama.
But Ryan’s radicalism makes him an excellent target for the Obama campaign, which will revel in painting him as an extreme candidate in the pockets of the 1%, eager to gut Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. It’s a powerful line of attack that has the added benefit of being an accurate description of reality. As much as Americans love their capitalism, they love these exceptions to it even more.
Other handicaps that Romney accepted with the pick of his running mate: as another white guy, Ryan carries no extra bonuses with crucial voting groups such as Hispanics and women, and he hails from Wisconsin, not a crucial swing state like Florida and Ohio. He’s a Washington insider, with a long paper-trail of votes as a representative, also known as ‘potential ammunition’ in campaign parlance. That he pampers to climate change denialists is, unfortunately, unlikely to cause him any problems, even in a year of severe drought.
Something here that should worry Obama: Romney has plenty of experience taking calculated risks, is obsessed with thorough research and has become very rich based on these skills. Wise or not, it’s not a Hail Mary pass like McCain’s.
With the VP tap done, it’s time to look forward to the debates, the Olympics of well-honed rhetorical fencing, question-evading ju-jitsu and talking-point archery. I’ll be gleefully watching all of them, with equal parts giddy interest, intellectual disgust and beer. That the outcome matters in a very real way to a great many people doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be able to enjoy watching the fight.
For those of us who prefer politics to other types of sports, the season just got more interesting, and the outcome even more important. The pick will energize both bases, and might, just maybe, make the campaign more about actual ideas and policies than it would with another choice.
In the age of sky cranes and laser robot cars on Mars, we should at least be allowed to hope.