August 20, 2012 at 12:27 pm
The first thing most voters realized about Paul Ryan after Mitt Romney named him as his running mate was that he was young. Paul Ryan is only 42. This, of course, helps Romney, as the Republican Party has an image problem as simply a party of old, rich, white men. Ryan is at least a young, rich, white guy (he made his money the old-fashioned way – he married into it).
However, press coverage of Ryan’s age in the days after his addition to the Romney ticket at times presented the Wisconsin congressman as unprecedentedly young for a vice presidential nominee. While Ryan is young for the office – the median age of vice presidents when they took office is 53 – there have been several young vice presidents.
For instance, the youngest person ever to serve as vice president was John Breckinridge, who was only 35 when elected and 36 when he assumed the office in 1861. On the opposite end of the spectrum was Alben Barkley who was 71 when he became vice president in 1949. Several unsuccessful vice presidential picks were in their forties, and several vice presidents have been in their early or mid-forties. This includes: Richard Nixon (40); Dan Quayle (41); Daniel Tompkins (42); Theodore Roosevelt (42); John C. Calhoun (42); Aaron Burr (45); Schuyler Colfax (45).
For comparative purposes, Joe Biden was 66 when he joined Barack Obama in the White House in 2009. When Biden and Ryan sit down to debate in October, the Vice President will be a month shy of his 70th birthday. But Ryan brings more than youth to the ticket.
Vice presidents are usually picked to broaden the appeal of the ticket. This occurs not only from an age perspective – an older presidential candidate might select a younger vice president – but from geographic, ideological, and religious perspectives as well. In each case, Ryan adds value to the GOP ticket. Where Romney is older, Ryan is young. Romney is a moderate and Ryan is very conservative. Romney lives in Massachusetts; Ryan is from the heartland (Wisconsin).
Even though Romney’s Mormonism necessitated that he select a mainline Protestant and Ryan happens to be Catholic, his positions against gay rights (marriage, adoption, military service…), abortion, and even birth control will resonate well with evangelicals. Moreover, conservatives have never liked nor trusted the flip-flopping Romney. But, Ryan has been a darling of the Tea Party and both the fiscal and social conservative wings of the party.
Heck, even the names Romney and Ryan, while not exactly “Tippecanoe and Tyler too,” do, nonetheless, sound very good together. On a personal level, the two men are said to have chemistry and Romney, who is usually awkward on the stump, has appeared to be enjoying himself since his vice presidential pick… to the extent that one wonders whether Paul Ryan is secretly the sixth Romney son!
However, it must be said that Ryan’s positions on Social Security (he pushed legislation to privatize it) and Medicare (he wants to replace it with vouchers) will hurt the Republicans in key states with large senior populations, such as Florida and Pennsylvania. And, his advocacy of deep cuts in environmental programs, student loans, and social programs that benefit the poor and middle class will require a good deal of spin by the campaign.
In the end analysis, Paul Ryan is an intriguing and bold pick for the usually cautious Romney. But, arguably the single most important aspect of the vice presidency is whether the person is ready, in the event of an emergency, to step into the Oval Office on day one. All analysts agree that Joe Biden was and is ready and a strong case can be made that other possible Republican vice presidential contenders – Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels, Rob Portman – would have fit the bill. As to Ryan, it remains open to debate.
Robert P. Watson, Ph.D. has published 34 books on American politics and history, and serves as Professor and Coordinator of American Studies at Lynn University (site of the third/final presidential debate of 2012)