Paul Ryan's first week as a vice presidential candidate gave him both positive and negative publicity. Certainly many more people know who he is now and his signature budget plan got a better opportunity to be the subject of a broad public debate. Agree with him or not, he is one of the most impressive young GOP leaders out there. But his similarity to the presumptive Republican candidate Mitt Romney (putting aside their 23 year age gap) became fodder for critics who mocked Ryan as being Romney's "mini-me." After all, both are white, sporty, well-off, economy-oriented politicians.
After the 2008 GOP ticket fiasco, former VP candidate Sarah Palin complained in her autobiography that the campaign managers, in their efforts to maintain tight control of the message, did not let her handle the nascent crises, speak to the press, et cetera. It's not clear how many independent decisions Rep. Paul Ryan is making on the campaign trail, but several of his moves already seem questionable.
After two days on a bus tour together in Virginia and North Carolina, Romney and Ryan parted ways when the presidential candidate flew to Florida, to campaign on his own. It was an understandable move, as they were likely hoping the solo trip would help them avoid harsh criticism of Ryan's plan to turn Medicare into a voucher program, in a state with plenty of retirees. But the Romney campaign got Medicare-related headlines in Florida anyway, and Paul Ryan was left to deal with harsh criticism anyway - when on Monday, hecklers at the Iowa state fair screamed: "Hands off social security." Supporters were there as well, chanting: "Mitt Romney" (who was in Florida ) and "USA." One could hardly call it the "substantial debate on big ideas" that Romney's pick for VP was supposed to provoke.
Republican Jewish Coalition Executive Director Matt Brooks, asked about Ryan's skipping Florida campaign stops, said he would not be too quick to "read too much into it." "We'd like to think that the Jewish community is the center of every decision that a campaign makes. But in reality it's not, there are other events," he said. "Campaigns are very fluid. [Ryan] had an opportunity to go to the Iowa state fair, and I am sure he'll be in Florida extensively in the coming weeks."
Another dubious campaign decision was one to send Ryan to meet with casino mogul and Romney-backer Sheldon Adelson and other big Republican donors. Ryan met with the group in Adelson's Venetian hotel on Tuesday evening, after attending a GOP rally in Las Vegas. While major campaign contributors certainly have the right to assess the political product in which they are "investing," Ryan's meeting certainly added to the impression that in this race, the public's role is dwarfed by the influence of big money. Outside the hotel, protesters called on Ryan to "go home" and asked, "This is what democracy looks like?"
The media was barred from covering the meeting (presumably, because of the heavy criticism Romney suffered following press coverage of his Jerusalem fundraiser, during which he said "cultural differences" explained the gap between the Israeli and Palestinian economies ). Ryan's meeting with donors reportedly focused on the question of campaign finance.
Incumbent President Obama's campaign, of course, didn't miss the opportunity to castigate Romney for the meeting, writing in an email to supporters: "Just 72 hours after joining the GOP ticket, Paul Ryan is making a pilgrimage to the Sands' Venetian casino in Las Vegas to kiss the ring of Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate who's already donated more than $35 million to Republican groups in this election. Before Ryan's even been fully introduced to the American people, he's attending a private fundraiser in Vegas with the top super PAC donor."
In his 14 years in Congress, Paul Ryan has not been known as a foreign policy heavyweight. It's clear Romney does not consider it a top priority either. Between the two, they may be happy to keep Israel, the Middle East and the rest of the world out of the campaign conversation as much as possible during the remaining two and a half months of the campaign. But Israel is an issue close to Adelson's heart, and it will be interesting to see whether one major donor can single-handedly "persuade" his candidate to keep it in the race, front and center.
Israel won't fade away
In their first joint interview as running mates, to CBS's "60 Minutes," Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan spoke quite a bit their relationship, their economic vision, the vetting process and their plans to "turn America around." Romney touched very, very briefly on foreign affairs, saying, "I'm a policy guy, believe it or not. I love policy. I love solving tough problems. And we face real challenges around the world, places like Syria, Egypt, Iran. We've got real problems."
Israel wasn't mentioned in this interview even once, but Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, thinks it's way too early to assume that the race will not focus on foreign policy or Israel. As he puts it, "The Middle East has a way of forcing itself onto America, and into American politics, no matter what the politicians might prefer. Even if Israel doesn't strike Iran before November - and people here are taking seriously the noises coming out of Jerusalem these past few days - I think this issue doesn't fade away."
Dems' anti-Ryan list
Ryan's budget proposal will make it difficult for him to become the new "darling" of the U.S. Jewish community. And the National Jewish Democratic Council has published a list of "Ten Things Every American Jew Should Know about Paul Ryan" to stress this point.
"Ryan has little, if any, foreign policy or national security experience, yet pushed for cuts to the foreign aid budget that are strongly opposed by the pro-Israel community," it said. "Also indicative of his inexperience, Ryan had the chutzpah to accuse America's top generals of lying, for which he later apologized," NJDC wrote, referring to a March 2012 episode during which Ryan, the House Budget Committee Chair, said: "I think there's a lot of budget smoke and mirrors in the Pentagon budget, which is not really a true, honest and accurate budget." He later admitted he "misspoke."
The NJDC also accused Ryan of voting "at least six times against measures to strengthen Iran sanctions during the 112th Congress simply because those measures were advanced by Democrats." And the organization called him out on several other topics that are anathema to liberal Jews: his anti-choice stance, opposition of gay marriage, lack of support for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (which makes it easier for women to challenge inequality in salaries ), and his Medicare reform plan. "Ryan wants to replace Medicaid with block grants, which would severely impact millions of Americans - including seniors, the disabled, and the poor - who desperately need the basic guarantees offered by Medicaid," the list warns.
It's too early to predict the impact Ryan will have on the outcome of the race. He enjoys support of the GOP conservative base, he does not bring to the ticket any truly crucial swing state (his home state of Wisconsin has only 10 electoral votes ), or the appeal to minority groups that Romney clearly lacks. But according to the Gallup daily poll, Romney is ahead, with 47 percent support to Obama's 45 percent. If Rep. Ryan won't prompt the debate on the specific alternatives proposed by Romney, the race will remain a referendum on Obama's performance.
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