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Paul Ryan: How does Romney's nominee measure up against Sarah Palin?

Jeremy D. MayerThe Christian Science Monitor

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 books.

OPINION: Mitt Romney’s pick of Paul Ryan as his running mate is almost as bold as John McCain’s choice four years ago. But Congressman Ryan is no Sarah Palin.

And that’s good news for us all, Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike.

Indeed, Mr. Ryan, who is chairman of the House Budget Committee, is nothing less than the anti-Palin. Although he’s young, telegenic, and very conservative, the similarities with Ms. Palin end there.

Back in 2008, Palin – at that time the governor of Alaska – very quickly showed herself to be little more than a talented TV personality, with almost no substantial knowledge of policy or even a grasp of basic facts about government. Ryan, by contrast, stands out among Republicans in the House for his wonkish interests.

It may be damning Ryan with faint praise to observe this, but he clearly passes the “ready to be president” test with flying colors, at least so far. Several hard-core supporters of President Obama already confessed to me that if Mr. Romney were to win, and Ryan were to become president via tragedy, it would not be a scary moment, in terms of the abilities and temperament of the man. Democrats can and will credibly argue that Ryan would lead the nation in the wrong direction, but at the same time, it must be conceded that he is a fundamentally competent and intelligent leader.

And what a relief that is. The Ryan pick suggests we may look back on the Palin selection as an aberration, a colossal error, rather than as a sign of a political class in inevitable decline.

Ryan’s choice will also mean a more substantive debate. President Obama himself has been known to praise Ryan for his seriousness and focus on policy. And while there is a lack of specificity on several points in Ryan’s cost-cutting budget plan, it is far superior to any document the Democratic-led Senate has put forward (hint – they haven’t even passed a budget proposal). The country could now see a more open and honest debate on Medicare financing and general fiscal policy than it has in many years.

Ryan is so anti-Palin that there’s already been a lively debate over his philosophical influences. With Palin, the question was whether she read books. With Ryan, the question is which. And thus his selection opens up a surprising new avenue of attack for the Democrats in a presidential election: the philosophy of über capitalist and advocate of extreme selfishness, Ayn Rand.

In 2005, Ryan told a meeting of the Ayn Rand-promoting Atlas Society that the “reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.” He’s been known to hand out Ayn Rand’s most famous novel, “Atlas Shrugged,” as Christmas presents (which, given how Rand felt about Christianity, is like wishing David Duke a Happy Hanukkah), and to encourage his congressional interns to read her work as well.

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.

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.