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Paul Ryan – the anti-Palin

Paul Ryan is almost as bold a choice as Sarah Palin for the Republican vice presidential pick. With Palin, the question was whether she read books. With Ryan, the question is which (he's a fan of über capitalist author Ayn Rand). Ryan's political philosophy merits debate.

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Although Ayn Rand’s books remain remarkably strong sellers, much of her political philosophy is far outside of the American mainstream. Not only did she aggressively reject all religious faith, she singled out Christianity for its altruism and its tendency to encourage the strong to care for the weak. Such programs only encouraged the “moochers” to live off the saintly wealthy, in Rand’s elitist views. She was adamantly opposed to any social safety net at all.

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Unlike attempts to link Obama to Islam or to Marxism, linking Paul Ryan to Ayn Rand is factually accurate. That raises a potential problem for the Romney campaign as Democrats link Romney to the Ryan budget that “ends Medicare as we know it.”

In April, a left-leaning group gave a preview of what the Democratic attacks will look like, starring Ayn Rand – and linking her with none other than Paul Ryan.

It seems the Romney staff may already be aware of Ryan’s philosophical problem. Just a few months ago, after spending a little time with Romney, Ryan backtracked on his prior effusive praise for Rand, derided her atheism, and claimed the thinker with the most influence on him was not Rand, but medieval Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas, whose ideas continue to shape Catholic ethics and just-war theory, is a far safer choice than the odd, cultish Ayn Rand, who argued for a society in which no one ever did anything for another out of charity or goodness.

Unfortunately for Ryan, there’s no record of him handing out the “Summa Theologica” to anyone, at Christmas or at the Ayn Rand love-ins he’s attended.

In the end, Ryan’s nomination is far less significant an issue than the state of the economy. If it improves over the next two months, a positive bounce from the Ryan nomination will be irrelevant. And if it declines further, all the attacks on Ryan’s political philosophy won’t save Obama from the electorate’s wrath. 

But if the numbers remain tight, Ryan’s nomination could be one of several factors that determine the outcome. And the Democrats, who have already begun attacking Ryan’s Medicare plans, will find much ammunition in his prior statements about social welfare and Ayn Rand.

Still, we can expect that the vice-presidential debate this year will be far superior to 2008, in which the biggest question was whether Palin could come across as someone with intellectual gravitas on policy issues for 90 minutes. With the nomination of Ryan, we get someone with enough substance that his political philosophy merits debate, not just for 90 minutes, but for the almost 90 days left before America votes.

Jeremy D. Mayer is an associate professor in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University where he also directs the masters program in public policy.

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