The ultra-conservative Paul Ryan is the target Obama wanted most

Romney remains insecure about his conservative support.

US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney listens to his running mate Paul Ryan. Photograph: Getty Images.

Mitt Romney fooled us all. Back in March, those of us covering the presidential campaign thought we had spied Romney’s strategy in his chief spokesman’s candid remark that, with the Republican nomination battle winding down, Romney would execute an “Etch a Sketch”. That is, in the manner of the child’s drawing toy, his campaign would wipe clean the conservative positions he had staked out in the primaries and reconfigure him as the moderate who had served as governor of Massachusetts. It was the obvious tack to choose, one that seemed likely to draw educated, suburban swing voters away from Barack Obama. The Obama team, and the press, braced for the inevitable pivot.

Except it never came. Instead, Romney doubled down on his new conservative persona – vowing to repeal Obama’s health-care law despite its resemblance to the legislation Romney passed as governor; attacking Obama as weak in defending Israel and standing up to Iran and Russia; sticking with a conservative, if vague plan of tax and spending cuts. And now, in his clearest opportunity for self-definition, Romney has chosen as his running mate Paul Ryan.

The hunter hunted

Ryan, who is 42, is little known to most Americans – he was able to ride unrecognised on a flight to his job interview with Romney disguised only by a baseball cap and sunglasses. Yet among conservative talk-show listeners and Beltway Republicans, he is something of a demigod, a legend complete with tales of exploits in the wild (hunting elk with a cross-bow; catching catfish with his bare hands). It’s a remarkable deification given that, at a time of conservative vilification of Washington, Ryan has spent most of his career ensconced in it, aside from a year working for his family’s construction business in Wisconsin. He arrived in Washington as one of the swarm of Republican interns, and sufficiently impressed his superiors that he was urged to run for Congress at 28, winning the seat he has now held for seven terms.

In his early years in the capital, he soaked heavily in not only standard free-market tracts but also the novels of Ayn Rand; whereas most leave their Randian enthusiasm behind in the college dorm room, Ryan has carried his well into adulthood, passing out copies of Atlas Shrugged to his staff and declaring in 2005: “[T]he reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand. And the fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.”

This ideology might have gone unnoticed had Ryan not fused it with close study of the federal budget, which led to his introduction, in 2008, of the document that made him famous – the “Ryan budget”, a plan to reduce deficits by slashing federal spending and taxes on the wealthy. Conservative leaders hailed him as a visionary; Beltway mandarins celebrated him for his “seriousness”, and even a few liberals welcomed him as that rare conservative who had studied up on budget policy and was willing to engage them on the details.

But, over time, the extremity of Ryan’s vision began to sink in. It would turn Medicare from a government programme that covers most medical expenses for the elderly into a voucher with which they would purchase private insurance, shifting an increasing share of the costs on to seniors. It would cut even more deeply into the safety net for the poor. It would eviscerate non-military federal spending, everything from education to transportation to food safety. The bulk of these savings would go not towards reducing the deficit, but rather towards deep cuts in taxes on the rich, including the elimination of all levies on capital gains and legacies from wealthy estates.

After some initial words of respect for the congressman, Barack Obama has for a while been using the Ryan plan as his foil. “There’s nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. And I don’t think there’s anything courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don’t have any clout on Capitol Hill,” he said in a speech last year – as Ryan fumed in the audience at George Washington University.

And now Romney has pulled this Democratic target close to his side. It is a deeply risky move and makes it easier for Obama to do what he
has been trying all along – to turn the election into a choice, rather than a mere referendum on a sluggish economy. It allows him to tie Romney directly to a deeply unpopular Congress. And it jibes with his ongoing attempt to tar Romney as a rapacious, self-interested plutocrat who refuses to disclose his tax returns; who better to enhance this image than a Rand acolyte whose tax plan would, by eliminating taxes on investments, in effect bring Romney’s own tax rate to zero?

Stark choice

So what was Romney thinking? The pick signals that he was more worried than his campaign let on about being able to catch Obama if he’d continued on a more cautious path, as the polls show Obama with a slight but stubborn lead. It also suggests that Romney remains insecure about his conservative support in a year when base turnout will be paramount, and aware that a blatant move to the centre would have prompted howls of derision. It’s likely, too, that he was simply at ease with Ryan, who, with his dark good looks and jutting chin, surely reminds Romney of his five sons and the countless young strivers he recruited to his firm.

Indeed, the two men are exhibiting a senior/ junior partner rapport – though there is an awkward gap between the polite applause accorded Romney and the roars of adulation for Ryan. The dynamic is reminiscent of Sarah Palin’s first days with John McCain, before the country discovered she was not prepared for the national stage. There is less reason to doubt Ryan’s competence, at least in matters of domestic policy.

The question in the weeks ahead is how much his allure will fade as voters get a closer view of his vision for America, one that Mitt Romney has now indisputably embraced as his own. Before, it was hard to know for sure what Romney was offering the country, but now it is apparent. The choice could not be clearer.

Alec MacGillis is a senior editor at the New Republic.