John Andrews

Is America in decline? Do we need to lower our expectations, aspire to lead from behind or not at all, and warn the kids of tougher times to come? Or are America’s best days still ahead?

This election is not only a referendum on Romney vs. Obama for president and on Republicans vs. Democrats for control of Congress. It’s also a test of the American people’s determination to rise up as free citizens shaping our own destiny – saying no to the defeatism that sees us sliding down and helpless to change it.

Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin joining the Republican ticket as Mitt Romney’s running mate is a clear signal that the GOP intends to frame the contest in exactly those terms. It won’t just be a resume runoff between the entrepreneurial executive with “sterling” turn-around skills (to quote Bill Clinton) and the community organizer in over his head.

Ryan’s youthful energy at 42, the intellectual command that has propelled him into House leadership, his steely courage as a truth-teller about our fiscal peril and a pathfinder away from the precipice toward prosperity, as well as his unapologetic faith at a time when religious freedom is under attack, make the vice-presidential nominee a clear asset for Republicans and a feared opponent for Democrats.

Add to this the hard-charging congressman’s love for the Colorado high country – he has climbed 40 of the state’s 54 peaks over 14,000 feet – and you have the most potentially transformative VP selection since President William McKinley put Theodore Roosevelt on the ticket in 1900. (Not the genteel Roosevelt, squire of Hyde Park, but his “strenuous life” cousin who ranched in Dakota and hunted bear in Glenwood Springs.)

Why does it matter that Paul Ryan is a mountain man, at home above timberline on the Fourteeners? Because there is no better index of character. It tells of someone’s backbone under pressure, resourcefulness in facing adversity, and trustworthiness for power. Conservative or liberal isn’t the point. The high peaks simply test your mettle. Declinists and defeatists need not apply. Excuses are for flatlanders.

Describing the summit approach for Capitol Peak near Aspen (14,130’), the Colorado Mountain Club guidebook says with jaunty understatement: “Scramble around a pinnacle or two, stroll along the knife edge,” and you’re there. Ryan told me last week that Capitol and nearby Pyramid Peak (14,018’) are his favorite climbs so far.

Can you imagine Vice President Joe Biden even wanting, let alone being able, to stroll the Capitol knife edge? Or forging to the top of a “very rough and steep” Pyramid with its “precariously poised rocks,” warned of in the same guidebook?

John Andrews

John Andrews is former president of the Colorado Senate and the author of "Responsibility Reborn: A Citizen's Guide to the Next American Century"