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?
I can’t – and it’s not just that Biden always has one foot in his mouth. Nor is it merely differing leisure preferences: golf greens for the presidential incumbent, boulder fields for the would-be veep. Rather the contrast goes to the core of what the men on these two tickets expect of themselves and what they believe free Americans are capable of.
Can you imagine Barack Obama turning around the Olympics from impending failure or mobilizing the volunteers who rescued a lost girl from the mean streets of New York, as Mitt Romney did? Me neither. The GOP nominee has summited some steep ones of his own.
Self-discipline, surefootedness, stamina, grit, gumption, vision, daring, toughness, prudence, drive, the will to rise, the refusal to quit, team thinking, practical intelligence, joie de vivre, a zest for the difficult and a disdain for the allegedly impossible – these are the mountain-conquering qualities we see literally in Ryan and figuratively in Romney.
“Bring me men to match my mountains,” the opening line of Sam Foss’s 1894 poem “The Coming American,” is a favorite of Romney’s on the stump. In Paul Ryan, he adds to the ticket a man indeed well-matched to the mountainous challenges of our slumping economy and soaring debt – and very likely the coming man for a 2016 Republican recapture of the White House if Democrats prevail in 2012.
Romney’s slip of the tongue in saying “next president of the United States” at his introduction of Ryan on Aug. 11 (oddly, the same slip Obama made at Biden’s debut in 2008) would then have come true.
It was on a climb of Mount Shavano last summer – according to Bill Bennett, Reagan’s education secretary – that Ryan nearly said yes to Bennett’s entreaties for a 2012 presidential candidacy. But the younger man sped on alone to the summit (14,229’) while his onetime boss at Empower America rested a few hundred feet below, and so Bennett (in his words) “lost the argument.”
Speeding to the summit comes naturally to the Wisconsin budgeteer turned mountaineer, it seems. Ryan says his next climbing goal may be the Mount of the Holy Cross west of Vail (14,005’) – and after that, presumably, the hiker’s holy grail of bagging all 54 of Colorado’s Fourteeners.
But none of that will occur this year, of course, as the Romney-Ryan convention is now underway in Tampa and election day races toward us in ten short weeks. What a contest it will be. Between the incumbents running on fear (“They’ll push you off the cliff”) and the challengers running on solutions (“This way to the top”), we face a choice as sharp as the Continental Divide itself.