The way Democrats tell it, Paul Ryan is an apostle of greed -- a devotee of libertarian hero Ayn Rand who's as conservative on social issues as he is on the economy.
But there's another side to the Wisconsin legislator's political persona that seems to defy easy caricature. That's the Ryan who not only supported President Obama's bail-out of the U.S. auto industry in 2009 but who, over the years, has also strongly backed immigration reform -- not just tougher enforcement but also efforts to find legal channels for undocumented immigrants.
Both stances place Ryan at odds with his own Tea Party backers, and contradict the views of his GOP running mate Mitt Romney, who once denounced the auto bail-out as "creeping socialism," and who continues to deride President Obama's immigration reform plan as an unconscionable "amnesty" for law breakers.
The question is: could Ryan's seeming apostasy on such fundamental issues cause him and his party trouble in the months ahead -- or could it actually help soften the GOP ticket's image with some voters, especially working class whites and Latinos?
Right now, the debate over Ryan is focused on his proposed budget, including his reputation as the GOP's leading proponent of tax and spending cuts that critics have long charged subsidize the rich without actually stimulating the economy. In addition to depicting Ryan's budget plan as "radical extremist", some Obama surrogates have attacked his staunch pro-life views -- unlike Romney, he opposes abortion under all circumstances -- while noting that he once cast votes in favor of the Iraq War and other Bush-era initiatives that resulted in higher deficits.
But no one in the Obama campaign has drawn attention to those Ryan positions that may be at odds with his reputation as a pugnacious and uncompromising ideologue.
Why did Ryan support the auto-bail-out? Because so many of his constituents in Wisconsin's lst district -- where registered Democrats and Republicans enjoy rough parity -- did. Ryan's district is also home to thousands of auto-workers and workers in auto-related industries that stood to lose their jobs if the "Big Three" of GM, Chrysler and Ford went bankrupt.
Ryan tried his best to back the $80 billion bail-out without actually supporting the larger Obama bail-out package known as TARP from which the auto funds derived. In the end, though, he quietly cast his vote for TARP, one of the early Obama "Big Government" programs that inspired the birth of the Tea Party.
Ryan's support for immigration reform is more long-standing. In 2002, he cast his vote for a bill that would have legalized undocumented immigrants but as the mood of the country on immigration began shifting rightward, so did Ryan. Still, in 2009, he voted for "Ag Jobs," a bill sponsored by Democratic Sen. Diane Feinstein that would have legalized some two million farm workers, including workers employed in the dairy industry in Wisconsin. GOP conservatives strongly opposed the measure.
The Obama campaign seems unsure about how or even whether to exploit Ryan's legislative record. Its latest gambit is to highlight Ryan's support for a bill co-sponsored by Missouri Rep. Todd Akin that would have altered the legislative definition of "rape" in order to further restrict federal funding for abortions. The campaign has also noted that Ryan requested federal stimulus money -- which Ryan first denied, then confirmed -- in theory, damaging his reputation as a zealous apostle of the free market.
But the Obama gambit contains serious risks. Nibbling at the edges of of Ryan's conservatism is unlikely to undermine Ryan's standing with the GOP base, to whom he is already something of a hero. At the same time, signs of moderation or flexibility may well help Ryan establish his bona fides with independents or even some Democrats, who are attracted to Ryan's fiscal conservatism but worry about the potential for "extremism" in his candidacy.
In fact, it would well turn out that the GOP ticket tries to use aspects of Ryan's record, especially his moderation on immigration, as an asset. Ryan did oppose the Dream Act -- a litmus test of sorts with some Latinos -- but like Romney, he extols the virtues of legal immigration and supports reforming the current visa system to allow more high-skilled foreign workers to obtain green cards.
Ryan's support for at least some strong measure of immigration reform already threatens to divide the immigration reform coalition that unites pro-business force and Latino and immigrant rights groups around a common political agenda. The pro-business wing of the movement welcomes Ryan's support for high-skill visas, while the pro-legalization wing seems confused about how to respond.
Will Ryan's immigration views soon be in play? One place to look will be the GOP convention in two weeks. Two of the party's rising Latino stars -- Florida senator Marco Rubio and New Mexico governor Susana Martinez -- have prominent speaking roles and both have pushed the party publicly to support a Republican version of immigration reform -- continued tough enforcement, coupled with a guest worker program and some signs of moderation on legalizing at least some of the undocumented.
Romney, who still trails Obama 2-1 among Latinos in the latest national polling, will be under pressure to show further moderation on immigration -- if only to make clear that he strongly supports legal immigration and is open to some form of legalization once the border is "secure." He's already turned to Ryan to shore up his conservative credentials on the economy. Who would have thought the popular seven-term legislator might also help him demonstrate flexibility with moderates?
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