08/13/2012 12:32 pm ET Updated Oct 13, 2012

Paul Ryan: The Last, Best Hope for Progressives

In picking Paul Ryan as his running mate, Mitt Romney has given some small hope that the election will restore progressive thinking to its legitimate place in our political discourse. The choice does surely improve the odds on Barack Obama's reelection. That in itself is not the major consideration. After three and half years, we know how little to expect from the man in the way of defending social programs and the twentieth century consensus on a humane, responsive government. Rather, the reason for qualified optimism is that the lines are now drawn for a stark confrontation that the White House and the Democrat leadership in Congress cannot avoid.

Until now, they have found reason to fudge the reality that a massive campaign by reactionary forces was underway to remake American society in the romantized image of the 1890s. This evasive response reflected an odd combination of ingrained passivity, an obsession with tactics, reliance on conservative business interests for campaign financing, and -- let's admit it -- their own place in America's skewed stratification system. Some, like Obama, actually share some of the trendy notions incorporated on the radical Republican agenda, e.g. school vouchers and draconian security laws.

Overall, the Democratic reaction has amounted to an appeasement strategy. What was implicit now becomes explicit, though. Romney, Ryan and their claque are getting in the Democrats' face and shouting, "Are you stuck in the discredited past or joining us in renewing America?" Airy ideas of bipartisanship and the cultivation of common ground no longer have standing.

The core philosophical issues that divide Ayn Randites who now call the shots in the Republican Party and those who uphold a modern conception of government and society are now sharply etched. A serious Democratic engagement on that question is an imperative if the party is to avoid losing its soul and its future as well as this election. Such an engagement is likely to carry the day -- not just on November 6.

It also would transform the political climate in ways congenial to progressives. For the inescapable spillover effects into the Congressional races will force Blue Dogs to distinguish themselves from the Tea Party and for equivocal Democratic candidates to declare themselves. The media would pay attention.

Of course, there are no grounds for progressives to be sanguine. They still face three big liabilities. They lack effective spokesmen who can articulate how their philosophical position corresponds to the populace's support for public programs that serve them -- programs that are endangered by a rabid Republican Party; they remain beholden to fat cat donors; and they do not have a partisan champion running for reelection. Obama predictably will take every opportunity to preserve the fiction that dialogue and unity are more important than decisive political judgments. His instinct is to blur differences so to raise himself above the fray that pits lesser mortels. The very fact that he is now the clear favorite encourages those sentiments. Preoccupied above all with his own personal aspirations, he may yield to the temptation to play prevent-defense once he has a solid lead. Whether in politics or football, the only thing that strategy prevents is an easy victory.

So Ryan indeed does have the potential to get Obama and those who have mislead the Democratic Party finally to face up to the reactionary ideological challenge which has turned America upside down. Still, we cannot ignore the persistence of misguided beliefs that the Tea Party really represents the essence of America; and that Americans want nothing more than "compromise" and "peace" at any price.

The last is what Obama is quoted at length as telling Ron Suskind in the Oval Office as the President reflected on the debacle of 2010. We can be confident that were Obama to prevail, the first words out of his mouth on November 7th will be about "healing" -- followed perhaps by an invitation to Romney/Ryan to join him for a prayer breakfast in the White House in the name of national unity. Well enough, but for progressives it would be more savory if the election brought a resounding defeat for the reactionaries rather than a partial, and therefore muted victory.