Those of us who are forever fascinated by American politics can wheel out two standard quotations about the American vice-presidency. The first, elegantly uttered by the first holder of the office, George Washington’s deputy John Adams, describes it as “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived”. The second, saltier and better known, comes from John Nance “Cactus Jack” Garner, 32nd vice-president, who dismissed the job, which was his under Franklin Roosevelt from 1933 to 1941 as “not worth a bucket of warm piss”.
Not even the occasionally megalomaniac tenure of Dick Cheney from 2001 to 2009 has quite managed to transform the significance of the vice-presidency from the post described by Adams and Garner. Certainly Joe Biden’s four low-profile years in the post under Barack Obama have confirmed it. They have been far less noteworthy than Cheney’s and historically far more typical. The old Washington line about the unfortunate mother who had two sons who were never heard from again — one was lost at sea and the other became vice-president — still holds true.
Yet it was handy to be reading Robert Caro’s latest volume of biography on Lyndon Johnson, a work which contains all the dismissive jokes about the vice-presidency just cited and several more besides, when news came through of the nomination of Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin to be Mitt Romney’s running mate. It was a useful corrective to the instinct to dismiss the post, since Ryan, the hugely influential House budget committee chairman who has been thrust to prominence by a combination of economic crisis and political polarisation, is one of the most powerful inside-the-Beltway Washington politicians to be offered a shot at the vice-presidency since Johnson himself ran with Jack Kennedy in 1960.
Many of his contemporaries thought Johnson was crazy to exchange his unprecedentedly powerful role as majority leader in the Senate for the obscurity of the vice-presidency. Johnson being Johnson, however, there was immense calculation in the move since, as he himself said to Clare Booth Luce at the Inauguration Ball in 1961 with tragic prescience: “Clare, I looked it up: one out of every four presidents has died in office. I’m a gamblin’ man, darlin’, and this is the only chance I got.”
Johnson was confident he would be able to shape the administration from the vice-presidency. One of his own favourite sayings, much quoted by Caro, was: “Power is where power goes.” It was the individual who mattered, in other words, not the office. As it turned out, Johnson miscalculated massively, because Kennedy marginalised his deputy. But the saying may yet turn out to be a useful aphorismif the focused, intelligent and powerful Ryan ever gets to be vice-president under the almost congenitally indecisive and equivocal Romney.
That’s because, if the two of them defeat Obama in November, America will have elected itself one of the most anti-government leaderships in its history, and it is likely to be one in which Ryan sets the tone and perhaps calls the shots. Ryan is a deeply serious fiscal conservative and anti-federal government politician. He is also a man in a hurry. He should absolutely not be underestimated. He wants Washington to get out of the pensions business and replace the existing Medicare system with vouchers. He has argued for the reduction of income tax to two rates — 10 per cent and 25 per cent. He wants to repeal Obama’s health care legislation and remove tax incentives for employers to provide health insurance. He sees America engaged in an existential struggle to avoid what he sees as an Obama-inspired slide into European socialism.
By choosing Ryan, Romney has ensured that the 2012 election will be an ideological fight. It will be, as Simon Schama has put it, a choice between the America of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal institutions and the America of the individualist cult of Ayn Rand, of which Ryan is an enthusiastic adherent.
Europeans, accustomed to thinking that elections are won in the centre ground, by capturing independent voters, tend to assume — and hope —that the choice of Ryan will therefore be counter-productive. But this is a dangerous assumption, even though some US commentators, even conservatives, also share it.
It is dangerous because American voters have repeatedly upended that assumption, whether in the disputed presidential election of 2000, or in the congressional votes in 1994 and 2010. Inan America where economic growth is fragile, job trends erratic, and the federal deficit massive (thanks primarily to George Bush not Obama), this distinctive American conservative strength, so unlike the politics of most of western Europe, but combined with the globally familiar anti-incumbent feeling of hard times, may be hard to stop. This isn’t yet a rerun of 2008, when another reckless choice of running mate by another Republican presidential candidate whom the grassroots of the party did not like, effectively handed the election to the Democrats. Sarah Palin was ludicrous. Paul Ryan is serious. And this is a much tighter contest, in harder times, against an incumbent president who has disappointed some of his more naive supporters.
The true importance of the 2012 US election as seen from outside America may rest on a different paradox. This is an immensely important election for Americans. But it is an election with surprisingly little resonance outside America. It is a contest between two candidates and parties which are so thoroughly shaped by exceptional American conditions and traditions many of which come back, in the end, to the slow and domestically painful decline of American power that it offers few of the lessons which the British political class loves to obsess about. Ryan is very unlike any significant British or continental European conservative politician.
That is not to say that the outcome does not matter to non-Americans. Or that we don’t have our preferences about who wins. But the reality is that both Obama-Biden (assuming that Biden remains on the ticket) and Romney-Ryan are focused on America first, and that their view of the world is one in which Europe is a source of problems to be avoided, not of models to be emulated. American politics is always irresistible entertainment. But Americans do not have the answers to Europe’s problems, any more than Europeans have the answers to America’s. Serious grownup politics for Europeans begins here in Europe, now more than ever.
Guardian News & Media Ltd