The GOP's Shrinking Base


(The Root) — Mitt Romney has managed to do the impossible: find a running mate who is the mirror image of himself.

In a surprising, though not completely unexpected, move, Romney chose Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) as his vice presidential nominee. Ryan, who hails from the small town of Janesville, Wisconsin, has risen to national prominence in recent years as chairman of the House Budget Committee.


His signature legislative proposal, the Path to Prosperity, has been widely criticized for its reduction of taxes for corporations and wealthy Americans — while deeply cutting social welfare programs. The Paul Ryan budget effectively destroys Medicare by turning it into a voucher program; slashes funding to Medicaid, which serves single mothers, children and the poor; and privatizes Social Security, leaving the elderly without a safety net.

Meanwhile, Romney's "Etch A Sketch" candidacy — with his reinvention from a Massachusetts moderate to ultraconservative presidential candidate — is still plagued by accusations of flip-flopping and pandering. This required him to choose a running mate with unquestionable credibility.

Enter Paul Ryan.

Digging Into Ryan's Roots

Ryan, a conservative Catholic and Tea Party darling, provides a buffer for Romney with evangelical Christians, many of whom remain dubious about Romney's Mormon faith. Others cite Romney's blue blood background and inability to connect with average Americans as a reason to stay home on Election Day. Ryan is a conduit to this key constituency. He's from Wisconsin, a quintessential Midwestern state, and he enjoys college ties to the key swing state of Ohio.

From the outside, Ryan's roots appeal directly to the base whose support Romney desperately needs to win, namely working-class whites. And this is the story Republicans have already begun to tell. Pundits have painted a picture of Ryan as a normal guy who lost his dad when he was 16, and paid for college tuition with Social Security benefits. You know — someone just like you.

Except that Ryan actually has far more in common with George W. Bush and Willard Romney than he does with the unemployed steelworkers in Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Paul Ryan comes from a storied family, with wealth and history to boot. His great-grandfather started a hugely successful company, Ryan Inc., in 1884, which is now a national construction firm, with projects like the original development of O'Hare Airport and numerous golf courses under its belt. The company's website boast contracts of up to $50 million and is still family-owned.


Ryan's father became a lawyer instead of joining the family firm, and Ryan himself decided to study economics at Miami University in Ohio, but he has spent most of his life in politics. Indeed, his only private-sector experience was working as a "marketing consultant" for a brief time at the family company, a move that the New Yorker referred to as "résumé padding."

Of course, Ryan's great-grandfather is a positive example of successful American enterprise, but the broader truth reveals the hypocrisy inherent in Republican policies — supported by both Romney and Ryan — that cripple the working class.


Appealing to the White Working Class

At the heart of today's Republican ideology is a commitment to protecting the interests of the wealthy. But strangely, its core voting base consists of uneducated, working-class citizens — and poor whites in particular. For decades, since Barry Goldwater's failed 1964 campaign and subsequent implementation of Nixon's Southern strategy, the GOP has enjoyed a bastion of working-class white voters in the same way that African Americans became stalwart Democrats.


The irony is that while liberals have supported an agenda of civil rights — which naturally appealed to black voters — Republicans have chosen a deductive strategy, using divisive, racially infused campaigns that demonize minorities as the source of societal ills and frame conservative, faith-based principles as an answer. Relying on cultural divides, Republicans have managed to secure the loyalty of poor whites even though conservatives push economic policies — like sending manufacturing jobs offshore — that hurt the very people who are now their base.

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But the 2010 census proved what Republicans had feared: that white Americans are a diminishing majority — representing only 63 percent of the total population — and are projected to be a minority by 2025. African Americans, Hispanics and Asians are coloring both social and electoral lines, and President Obama's success in the 2008 election highlighted how formidable race and ethnicity are in predicting voting outcomes. He won 95 percent of black voters, 67 percent of Latinos and healthy percentages of college-educated whites — 56 percent of women and 42 percent of men. The GOP's reliance on the white working class alone became no longer viable.


Instead of expanding their party's membership by including minorities and young voters, Republicans chose to double-down, reinforcing its image as a white-male-dominated franchise. The original thinking, it appears, was that by using coded messages questioning Obama's nationality and religion, the GOP could lead white voters — regardless of socioeconomic status — to distrust the president.

The midterm elections of 2010 proved that these tactics were effective. Recent polls by Quinnipiac and Pew Research show that Obama has lost support among white voters without a college degree. He now averages 34 percent within the group, despite having won 40 percent of that vote in 2008.


The new voter-ID laws in key states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida are designed to subvert any advantage Obama may have derived from African Americans and Latinos by offsetting it through a combination of minority-vote suppression and, possibly, a surge of white voters who are hostile to the president.

Optics vs. Reality

And herein lies the staggering genius of Romney's Paul Ryan pick. The optics alone reflect the far right's fantasy: an all-white, all-male ticket that appeases the GOP base. In fact, Ryan seems nearly identical to Romney's own sons: tall, dark-haired and preppy. No Latino like Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, and no woman like Sarah Palin. This picture-perfect ticket says that the Romney-Ryan plan is to restore American power to its paler past.


But dig a little deeper and Ryan — just like Romney — doesn't measure up.

First elected in 1998, Ryan is not a fresh face. He was a reliable vote for President George W. Bush, voting for the original Bush tax cuts as well as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, even though they were financed by deficit spending. He supported the costly and unfunded Medicare D prescription-drug plan, which conservatives now call socialist. Ryan even approved Bush's bank-bailout program, known as TARP.


All of these measures added more than $5 trillion to the national debt, but now Ryan blames Obama's policies for being the root cause of what was clearly Republican ineptitude.

Romney has largely been framed, even by his Republican-primary competitors, as a wealthy tycoon, out of touch with the average voter. Paul Ryan, however, is an apple not far from the same tree. He decries reliance on the state, but his biography shows that he benefits hugely from the hard work of others. He collects a salary — with health benefits — from the very government that he claims should be smaller, and he opposes "Obamacare," which offers Americans the benefits that Ryan and his family already enjoy.


This is where the hypocritical meets the unforgivable.

Undoubtedly, Ryan was chosen in part because his Midwestern roots may appeal to voters in rural areas of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin. In the wake of Republican Gov. Scott Walker's win in Wisconsin's recall election, Romney is hopeful that Ryan's home state is in play. But the disconnect between reality and Ryan's proposals proves how out of touch Republicans have become — even with devoted working-class whites.


Already Ryan has followed Romney's surreptitious lead, saying in a 60 Minutes interview with CBS' Bob Schieffer that he's willing to turn over only two years of tax returns. The two candidates appear to be applying for country club membership in the old boys' network — not trying to become leaders of the free world and an ethnically, racially and culturally diverse nation.

This Republican ticket reflects a party of dead ideas, stuck in a past that we need to forget.


Edward Wyckoff Williams is contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on MSNBC, Al-Jazeera, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.