Paul Ryan represents one of two branches of the Tea Party. Let’s call it the libertarian branch. These are people who are single-minded and absolutist about “free-market economics.” Theirs is a passion that leads to across-the-board opposition to taxes and government regulation of economic life, to bemoaning public debt, and to the aim of whittling down the American welfare state to extinction. It is a strain of extreme American conservatism that has been with us since its fierce opposition, generally among highly placed corporate leaders, to the New Deal. It fought for decades for dominance in the Republican Party. Once having achieved it with the presidency of Ronald Reagan — and having put American liberalism on the defensive for a generation — it has been consistently dissatisfied with the compromises of conservative politicians in power and has maintained its sense of itself as an insurgent force. This is the Koch brothers Tea Party, the Dick Armey Tea Party.
The other branch of the Tea Party is its populist branch. You could call this its Sarah Palin, or Glenn Beck, branch. This is the gritty, sweaty division of the Tea Party, its expressive side. It thrives on identity politics: they are the “real Americans;” the people who want “to take their country back.” They feel passionately that liberalism — of the Democratic Party and of the weak-kneed in the Republican Party — is so mistaken, so corrupt and sinister, that it’s hard not to consider its believers and practitioners under the sway of foreign or even treasonous influences. And it is certainly ungodly. These are the people for whom the “social issues,” like opposing abortion and gay rights, carry enormous weight. This is the part of the Tea Party that gives rise to its most glaring excesses, views that play at the edge of conspiracy thinking: ideas like the certain conviction that, birth certificates be damned, Obama was not born in the United States — that he is a secret Muslim spearheading a plot to impose Sharia law and Islamicize the United States.
The populist branch adheres to the free-market absolutism of the libertarians, but with different motivations. The libertarians, of whom Ryan is very much the exemplar, are grounded in the economic theory of the Austrian school of economics, thinkers like Friedrich Hayek, whose seminal title, The Road to Serfdom, sums up their view of the Keynesian economics they have sought to displace for the past seven decades. The populists, in contrast, are motivated by powerful feelings of resentment and dispossession. Liberals are ‘cultural elitists,’ people who think they ‘know better than the rest of us,’ and want to ‘tell us how to live our lives.’ Liberals want to take away what ‘we,’ hard-working real Americans, have earned, and redistribute it to those who don’t deserve it — to their lazy, poor, and, often, minority political base.
Opposition to the Obama administration’s attempt to provide universal health insurance, “Obamacare,” swiftly became the Tea Party’s signature rallying issue after its founding in early 2009. But the Tea Party’s opposition to Obamacare as well illustrates the different routes libertarians and populists take to converge around the same political positions. For libertarians like Paul Ryan, Obamacare is an egregious extension of government’s role in the economy. It is history moving in the wrong direction, threatening to add a layer, perhaps fatal, to their goal of ending the welfare state. For the populists, with their different political driving forces, the attempt to provide health insurance to 40 million uninsured Americans is experienced instead as a zero-sum exercise in which they lose. Their problem with Obamacare is not simply its being given to the uninsured as its being taken, they feel, from themselves.
Their divergent paths to opposing Obamacare signal where the libertarians and the populists part company. For the libertarians, Obamacare is of a piece with programs like Social Security and Medicare, all of which they want to root out or, at the very least, privatize. This is the thrust of the Ryan budget passed last year by the Republican House of Representatives. But for the populist, older, white and upper middle class Tea Partiers, Social Security and Medicare are part of their cultural inheritance and vital to their sense of economic security. It is not the existence of these programs, but their extension to the “undeserving,” that they object to. Hence the extraordinary banners at Tea Party protests proclaiming, “Government hands off my Medicare.”
This division between the libertarians and the populists defines the fine line Ryan has to tread if he is to maintain the boost of energy he has given the Republican ticket. His selection as the vice presidential candidate is wildly popular in the Tea Party. He confirms the Tea Party’s role as both a power within the Republican Party and as the guarantor of Republican conservative orthodoxy. He has cured much of the Tea-Party soul-searching that has gone on since Romney sewed up the Republican nomination, and which drove the anybody-but-Romney parade of challenges that marked the Republican primary season.
Like John McCain (2008) and Robert Dole (1996) before him, Mitt Romney is a candidate of the Republican establishment who has used the selection of a vice presidential running mate to attempt to galvanize the otherwise half-hearted support of the Republican Party’s far right. Dole’s selection, Jack Kemp, was a mentor to the young Paul Ryan, and was very much a creature of libertarian Republicanism—indeed he was often pedantic talking fiscal matters. But he could do little to save Robert Dole’s candidacy among populist conservatives. Sarah Palin was the very incarnation of populist conservatism, and while a tonic for the blahs of the populists, finally turned off independent and moderate voters. With the Ryan selection, Romney hopes to thread the needle his predecessors have missed, capturing the sober moderates and maintaining the populists’ sense that Ryan is ‘one of us.’
A few months ago, rumors spread of Hilary Clinton possibly replacing Joe Biden on the Democratic ticket. The idea seemed to be that this might cure Obama’s “enthusiasm gap.” Clinton would energize a Democratic base that had grown disillusioned with the ineffectual-seeming bipartisanship of Obama’s presidency. The Clinton-Biden swap didn’t come to pass, but Obama seems to have addressed the matter by calibrating his campaign toward the muscular candidate who captured the Democratic imagination in 2008.
Until now, the Republicans’ hope has been that the ‘anybody-but-Romney’ mood of the primaries would be overtaken by an ‘anybody-but Obama’ sentiment that would mobilize the Republican base. But the Republican version of the “enthusiasm gap” seemed to need stronger medicine. Hence, Paul Ryan.
For some time the 2012 Presidential election seemed to be shaping up as a contest of “competing enthusiasm gaps.” Each side has now placed its bets on how to overcome its respective enthusiasm liability and turn out its base. If Romney should overcome what seems today to be a notable Obama lead, the selection of Paul Ryan will seem to have been an inspired stroke of political cartography.