So we have a Republican ticket now: Romney Ryan 2012.
What strikes me about the roll-out of Paul Ryan so far is how grand and high-minded his speeches are: he speaks about the "mountain of debt" that awaits our nation if we follow our current path. He promises to tell the American people the unvarnished truth and to lead. Ryan seems not to be focussed so much on our immediate needs (jobs, access to healthcare, better schools, etc.). Instead, his gaze is directed at the distant horizon. He seeks to restore our faith in the Founders' guidng principles of freedom and self-reliance. He speaks of the "consent of the governed." Whatever else you can say about him, Ryan definitely has what George H.W. Bush famously called "the vision thing."
Two points about this:
1. It is attractive and stirring, even while we know it is unreal (and more than that, fraudulent; see Krugman). But how about the nitty-gritty of people's lives? How about a sense of modesty in our predictions for the future? Ryan's relentless focus on, and certainty about, the far-off future reminds me, incongruously, of the Soviet Union's 5-year plans. Bold, aspirational, but not very attune to the immediate needs of actual people.
Ryan's tone makes me wonder if he has been so steeped in Ayn Randian/Hayekian, right-leaning political philosophy that he has fallen a bit in love with ideas instead of staying observant to the facts on the ground. I guess this is exactly what we mean when we label someone "ideological." Ryan certainly fits that description, doesn't he? Further, I think his ideological bent -- his love for his ideas -- matches well with the "ideology" that drives Romney: namely, American exceptionalism (rooted in his Mormon faith). Both Ryan and Romney are insulated from reality -- in different but complimentary ways. Hence, perhaps, their easy rapport, their recognition of each other, despite the many differences in their backgrounds.
2. Ryan's visionary quality -- the crystal-clear narrative that drives his political outlook -- makes more obvious, by way of contrast, the absence of a clear narrative in President Obama's political outlook. We often observe how pragmatic and modest President Obama is in his politics, how willing he is to compromise, his relentless search for solutions, his non-ideological approach, goodbye-to-all-that, etc. And we celebrate this aspect of his politics. (Well, I do anyway.)
But the flip side of this is that we must acknowledge that for all his policy achievements, President Obama lacks a grand vision for where this country is heading. This isn't really a criticism. I don't fault him for this; I think it is difficult, maybe impossible, to find a clear narrative in the current era of globalization and resource depletion and the resulting economic turmoil. But it is interesting to ask: What does President Obama, privately, see as the optimal future for America?
I would guess that he sees a tumultuous century ahead, in which the way of life to which we are accustomed, astride the world as the country with the highest standard of living, will face unavoidable decline. The Western industrialized world is undergoing a Great Contraction -- that's how I think of it. To the extent that he has a vision, then, it is that Obama wants to ensure a modicum of fairness during this time of loss and falling away. He wants the government to help the poorest and the middle-class maintain at least some opportunities -- adequate schools, access to healthcare, a safe and clean environment, etc. -- slivers of light, through which they may follow their dreams and improve their families' conditions. Not too inspiring -- these slivers of light; yet considering the obstacles, even this is a very ambitious goal. A goal, but not a vision.
In some ways the 2012 election will come down to what people want more: specific help for their immediate future or... a clear, baby blue-eyed narrative, unburdened by pesky things like specifics.