Lawrence Alfred Powell, WORLD WATCH
It was a rare moment in United States politics. Mitt Romney's surprise choice last week of Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as 2012 running mate seems to have pleased both Republican and Democratic strategists, invigorating both camps at the same time.
How is that possible? Well, probably because of the increasingly schizoid nature of American 'culture wars'. These days, supporters of the two parties live on entirely different planets, fantasising to themselves in disconnected parallel universes. They rarely actually communicate with each other at all anymore in the statesmanlike way that might produce policy solutions that, say, enhance the public good.
From inside each of these dysfunctional symbolic universes, 'red-state' and 'blue-state' (colour fetish sound familiar?), it's possible to convince oneself that the prospects for winning the November election have just been dramatically improved by the Ryan pick - so it's time to don the party hats and pop the corks. The lights are on and they're celebrating late into the night on both sides of the street.
SCENARIO ONE: RYAN PICK HELPS ROMNEY
Republicans have firmly convinced themselves that this is a game-changer. They will now easily win the election in a historic landslide (though, temporarily, behind in the polls, and oh, yes, also the electoral college). After a lacklustre summer, following lacklustre spring primaries in which no strong challenger to Obama emerged (including Romney), this is the 'break' they've been waiting for.
One major reason for picking Ryan is that - as House Budget Committee chairman during the Obama years - his 'Path to Prosperity' plan has been seized upon by congressional Republicans as a blueprint for deep cuts in social programmes, and he is the party's most articulate spokesman for those cuts. In it, he makes the case that, "simply put, America's dangerous debt trajectory has put fiscal policy on a collision course with her national security" because entitlement programmes for the old and poor, such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, will "soon grow to consume every dollar of revenue that the government raises in taxes".
Republican strategists hope this VP pick will transform the election narrative by moving away from the so-far-unsuccessful theme of a 'verdict on Obama's failed leadership', and abruptly refocusing the campaign instead on the big ideological issues they prefer - the federal deficit and national debt, and out-of-control entitlement spending.
Unlike John McCain's VP choice of Sarah Palin in 2008, Ryan is aggressively intelligent and verbally quick on his feet. He should be a strong match for an ageing Joe Biden in the October vice-presidential debates. At 42, his charismatic personality could catalyse Generation X voters and move them more towards the Republican column. He could also help win Wisconsin with its 10 electoral votes, which had formerly been chalked up to Obama.
However, Romney's intentions are grander than just winning Wisconsin. Ryan's mission is nothing less than to radically transform the election into a nationwide revival of conservative American individualism and self-reliance, as 'the American way' - in the process swaying a whole host of formerly secure states away from Obama, and culminating in a grand national sweep of disapproval against the administration's lack of fiscal resolve, and what they see as dangerous European-style creeping 'welfare socialism'.
SCENARIO TWO: RYAN PICK HELPS OBAMA
Democrats seem to believe, with equal messianic fervour, that this is a Republican blunder that plays directly into their hands. Romney has just shot himself in the foot, making their electoral clean-up in November all the easier.
In the Democratic narrative, the Ryan pick was a desperate go-for-broke gamble by a losing campaign that had no choice but to roll the dice. If Romney had thought the election would ultimately be close, it was expected he would carefully choose a VP from a large swing state like Ohio (18 votes, Senator Robert Portman) or Florida (29 votes, Senator Marco Rubio) to help push the election over the top. Without one or both of those key states, it's hard to imagine how Romney could prevail in November.
Instead, he went for a running mate from Wisconsin - with only 10 electoral votes, that's consistently leaned towards Obama by about five per cent. And Ryan might now also lose Florida for Romney, by frightening older voters with his radical Social Security and Medicare reform proposals, which Romney has promised to implement if he wins. Florida has the largest percentage of retirees of any state, and voter studies have long shown that the percentage of Americans over 60 who vote in elections is consistently higher than for other age groups.
Ryan's brash, unapologetic, Ayn Rand-inspired hostility to social programmes that provide a safety net for the middle class, elderly and poor should provide an easy target for Democrats seeking to label the Romney-Ryan ticket as dangerous, irresponsible, Right-wing extremism. This VP choice pushes the ticket in the direction of the Tea Party right, at a time when Romney needs to court middle-of-the-road undecided voters in order to win.
The cuts to the government's safety net proposed by his Path to Prosperity plan are so frightening to many, in fact, that the nation's Catholic bishops have already - as of April - submitted a strident letter warning of the "unjustified and wrong" budget measures that, if implemented, would "hurt hungry children, poor families, vulnerable seniors and workers who cannot find employment".
One can already imagine the Democratic attack ads. The Ryan choice helps the Obama team construct a stronger case that the heartless 'social Darwinist' Romney-Ryan plan would privatise, voucherise - and, ultimately, defund and eliminate - Medicare and Social Security for elderly Americans, as well as Medicaid for the poor. Obama, in contrast, would faithfully safeguard such popular programmes.
Ryan's pampered upbringing also makes it much easier for Democrats to convincingly argue that this is a Rolls Royce ticket that "favours the rich over the middle class" - in a time when many have begun to think in terms of 'the one per cent' and 'Wall Street vs Main Street'. Both Romney and Ryan come from undeniably privileged backgrounds, and have never known serious financial hardship.
Democratic Party ads will surely argue that under Republicans' insensitive leadership, lacking empathy for the disadvantaged, the US would move even closer to becoming a plutocracy with taxes slashed at the top and burdens increasing at the bottom.
Lawrence Alfred Powell is honorary research fellow at the Centre of Methods and Policy Application in the Social Sciences at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and former polling director for the Centre for Leadership and Governance at UWI, Mona. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.