As Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) closed out the second night of the 2012 Republican Convention in the biggest speech of his life, he at first seemed slightly (and understandably) nervous. That lasted about sixty seconds, as the vice-president-in-waiting delivered remarks that became steadily more forceful and confident and left my wife, a relatively new citizen of the United States, saying "this guy should be running for president."
Ryan's 35-minute remarks, which ended with Republicans rowdily cheering the party's leading "rock star" (in a party demonstrably brimming with young talent), spoke of optimism for the future (calling on the memory of happy warrior Jack Kemp), of the damage to the economy and the fundamental nature of our republic caused by Barack Obama, of entitlement reform, of his family and upbringing, and (briefly) of faith and religion, all while conveying a combination of youth and earnestness that the Obama/Biden team cannot hope to match.
Clearly savoring the veep's role as attack dog, much of Paul Ryan's speech was aimed at President Barack Obama, and particularly at the president's abysmal record:
"I have never seen opponents so silent about their record or so desperate to keep their power… Their moment came and went... fear and division is all they've got left. With all their attack ads, the president is just throwing away money, and he's pretty experienced at that."
And this was the gentle warm-up.
Ryan spoke of the stimulus: "[It] cost $831 billion, the largest one-time expenditure ever by our federal govt. It went to companies like Solyndra, with their gold-plated connections, subsidized jobs, and make-believe markets. You, the American people… were cut out of the deal. That money wasn't just spent and wasted; it was borrowed, spent, and wasted. "
Adding that "maybe the greatest waste of all was time," Ryan went to the subject of unemployment and Obama's failure to address it while instead ramming Obamacare down the nation's throat: "If everyone out of work stood single file, that unemployment line would stretch the length of the entire American continent." Instead of dealing with jobs and the economy, Obama gave us "a long, divisive, all-or-nothing attempt to put the federal government in charge of health care. Obamacare comes to more than 2,000 pages of rules, mandates, taxes, fees, and fines that have no place in a free country."
Taking on the role of an electricity-controlling X-Men character, Paul Ryan didn't just touch the third rail of politics, he firmly grabbed hold of it: "The biggest, coldest power play of all in Obamacare came at the expense of the elderly." Even with all of Obamacare's taxes, "the planners in Washington still didn't have enough money...so they just took it all away from Medicare. $716 billion funneled out of Medicare by President Obama. An obligation we have to our parents and grandparents is being sacrificed all to pay for a new entitlement we didn't even ask for. The greatest threat to Medicare is Obamacare, and we're going to stop it. Medicare is a promise and we will honor it."
In a remarkable example of history not repeating itself, Ryan offered the boldness that is really the only "radical" thing about him, a willingness to take the offensive against Democrats' set-play of throwing-granny-off-the-cliff "Mediscare" tactics: "In this election on this issue, the usual posturing of the left isn't going to work. Mitt Romney and I know the difference between protecting a program and raiding it. Our nation needs this debate. We want this debate. We will win this debate." When you watched Ryan say these words, again according to the wisdom of my wife, you never doubted that he meant every single word.
After mentioning all the things President Obama didn't do, such as solve the housing crisis, and what he did do, such as preside over the lowering of America's debt rating amidst a pattern of this administration doing nothing when leadership was required, Paul Ryan offered a memorable image: "All that's left is a presidency adrift, surviving on slogans that already seem tired, grasping at a moment that has already passed, like a ship trying to sail on yesterday's wind."
Particularly in the last several minutes of his speech, Ryan had several memorable lines. (If he didn't write them himself, that speech writer deserves a bonus.)
Regarding Obama's failure to deliver: "The president is the kind of politician who puts promises on the record and then calls that the record. But we are four years into this presidency. The issue is not the economy that Barack Obama inherited, not the economy he envisions, but this economy that we are living."
Perhaps the most memorable verbal image of the evening was one of several comments made by Ryan aimed at young adults -- a group that tends to favor Democrats when they take the time to vote at all, and who are suffering through massive unemployment: "College graduates should not have to live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters, and wondering when they can move out and get going with life." Just stop and visualize that for a moment. One can hardly imagine a more powerful image to snap a naïve, idealistic 22-year old out of his college-induced leftist reverie.
If that was a great political moment, the most moving, powerful moment of the evening came during one of Paul Ryan's reflections on his family. He told a story about his mother, Betty, taking a bus forty miles to and from Madison (Wisconsin) each day to take college classes and gain the new skills needed to start a new business. "It wasn't just a new livelihood. It was a new life." This happened soon after Paul Ryan's father died, when Paul was sixteen years old. "And it transformed my Mom from a widow in grief to a small businesswoman whose happiness wasn't just in the past. Her work gave her hope. It made our family proud. And to this day, my Mom is my role model." The TV camera cut to a man in the crowd who had a tear running out of the corner of his eye; somehow Ryan himself kept it together, but you could see the obvious emotion in his face… and I could feel it in mine.
In addition to "carving up" President Obama, as the Hill put it, future VP Ryan spoke about the Republican ticket, both personally and politically.
On the subject of Mitt Romney as a person, Ryan said that his "decency is so obvious," and that he lives his life (and will govern) "without excuses and idle words." After making fun of Mitt Romney's music preferences (heard on the campaign bus as well as in hotel elevators), Ryan noted that "Mitt has not only succeeded, but he has succeeded where others could not. [Romney] is not only a fine businessman, he's a fine man." Ryan added another appeal to young adults by mentioning his own music preferences: "my playlist starts with AC/DC, and ends with Zeppelin."
Touching on an issue that former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee also broached, Ryan said of his Catholicism and Romney's Mormonism that "our faiths come together in the same moral creed.… Each one of us was made for a reason, bearing the image and likeness of the Lord of Life."
In the only part of his speech that touched on foreign policy, Ryan offered "the clearest possible choice" between the Republican ticket and the man currently occupying the White House: "Instead of managing American decline, leaving allies to doubt us and adversaries to test us, we will act in the conviction that the United States is the greatest force for peace and liberty that this world has ever known."
Paraphrasing Ronald Reagan's seminal question about Jimmy Hussein Carter, Congressman Ryan asked the obvious but rarely-stated rhetorical question: "Without a change in leadership, why would the next four years be any different than the last four years?" Speaking of change, Ryan made another pledge: "In a clean break from the Obama years, and frankly from the years before this president, we will keep federal spending at 20% of GDP or less because frankly that is enough." It is refreshing to hear a prominent politician honestly lay at least a little of the blame at the feet of his own party, and it reinforced the perception of Ryan as a sincere man willing to tell the truth.
Near the end of his Wednesday remarks, Paul Ryan offered one of the great lines in my memory of convention speeches: "If you're feeling left out or passed by, you have not failed. Your leaders have failed you. None of us should have to settle for the best this administration offers, a dull adventure-less journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us." Again quoting my wife, "He just explained 'Socialism for Dummies' in one sentence."
As Congressman Ryan and his beaming family waved goodbye from the stage, two things came inevitably to mind: Mitt Romney made a tremendous choice in running mate…and now Mitt Romney has a very high hurdle to clear in his Thursday evening nomination acceptance speech in order to avoid being eclipsed by his junior partner. For now, my Australian wife would gladly be waving a "Ryan for President" sign.