By Richard C. Longworth
With the selection of Paul Ryan as the probable Republican vice presidential candidate, this year's election has become mostly a battle between Midwesterners.
Not since 1976, when Gerald Ford (Nebraska/Michigan) and Bob Dole (Kansas) led the GOP ticket and Walter Mondale (Minnesota) became Jimmy Carter's VP, have three of the four spots at the top of the two major party tickets been filled by politicians with roots or careers in the Midwest.
Barack Obama (Illinois), Mitt Romney (Michigan) and Paul Ryan (Wisconsin) are all sons of the Midwest — indeed, the inner Midwest, the real Midwest, the old industrial heartland clustered around the Great Lakes.
But if they share a geography, that's about it. One can't imagine three more different men less shaped into a common mould. If geography is destiny, it's hard to see it in these candidates.
Obama, seeking roots after a rootless childhood, came to Chicago as a young adult, plunged into community organising in one of the city's toughest neighborhoods, built his contacts among the local power elites and used the state legislature as a springboard to national power.
Romney grew up in the wealthier suburbs of Detroit, the son of an auto executive who became Michigan's governor and himself a potential presidential candidate. But Romney left his home state early for college and by the time he was 30 was already making his consulting career out east.
Ryan is Wisconsin born and bred, a fifth-generation Wisconsinite who decamped to Ohio for his education and to Washington to work for Jack Kemp, one of his free-market mentors, but soon returned to Janesville to work (briefly) in the family business and then to run for Congress in 1998 for the seat he has held ever since.
Obama and Romney are Harvard grads, Obama in law, Romney in business. Ryan has his BA from Miami of Ohio but, unlike so many members of his generation, has no graduate education.
Coincidentally or not, Obama and Romney both come across as thoughtful non-ideologues, pragmatic in their thinking, willing to go with what works, not (as Keynes said) a "slave to some defunct economist." Romney struggled through the primaries to paint himself as more ideologically conservative than he probably is: the GOP's attempt to paint Obama as a "socialist" is nonsense.
Ryan, by contrast, is a true believer. Like many adolescents, he got bitten early by the Ayn Rand bug and never got over it. This led to a fascination with the Austrian free-market school exemplified by Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. As he happily concedes, that's where he is today.
Obama and Romney have wandered, from Hawaii and Indonesia to California and Chicago and Washington (Obama), or from Detroit to Cambridge to France to Utah to Boston (Romney). Obama's life seems a search for roots; Romney has three homes. Ryan, by contrast, lives now on the same block in Janesville where he grew up.
Obama is city; Romney is suburbs; Ryan is in middling small town (Janesville has 60,000 people).
Perhaps most vividly, all three men are shaped by the impact and memory of their fathers, but in very different ways.
As everyone knows, Obama barely knew his father, a Kenyan who deserted his family before the young Barack's birth. He was raised by his mother and her parents, but much of his early life seemed to be a search for his missing father; his first book of memoirs was titled Dreams from My Father.
Romney's father was the powerful George Romney, president of American Motors and governor of Michigan, one of America's most admired businessmen and politicians. Family memoirs indicate he also was a tough and demanding father who dominated his family.
The news stories since Ryan's vice presidential selection have made much of the fact that, when he was 16, he found his father dead. By his own account, his father's death forced the young Ryan to grow up fast, to become serious beyond his age. If he strikes associates now as focused and driven, he says it's because his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all died before they were 60.
All three men have ties to the auto industry. Romney, of course, grew up in it. Janesville for years was dominated by a big General Motors plan. When it closed in 2008, 2,500 workers lost their jobs. Obama, as president, bailed out both GM and Chrysler, but gets no thanks for this from the two Auto Alley natives on the GOP ticket.
Both Obama and Ryan have spent most of their careers in government, which would seem to be a handicap in this era of grass-roots anger against government and politicians. Yet it's Romney, the only candidate with solid experience in the private sector, who is being hammered for his reputation as a businessman.
Obama represented a mostly black district on Chicago's South Side when he was in the Illinois State Senate, then won a state-wide election to the US Senate. Romney was a one-term governor of Massachusetts. Ryan has always represented the first district of Wisconsin, which stretches from Janesville and Beloit in the west to Racine, Kenosha and the south Milwaukee suburbs in the east. Industrial on the fringes and rural in the middle, it's definitely a swing district: Obama carried it in 2008, even as Ryan was winning re-election there.
It's tempting to hope that, no matter who wins in November, the Midwest can expect a bonanza of projects and grants from having a favorite son in the White House. Alas, it won't happen. Romney is long gone from the Midwest. Ryan has sworn off earmarks, even for his home district. And about the only thing that Chicago got from the Obama administration so far is its new mayor, Rahm Emanuel.
This post was originally published at The Midwesterner.
17 August 2012