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The Romney-Ryan ticket and the diversity issue for the GOP

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By choosing Paul Ryan as his running mate, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney primarily hoped to thrill the GOP base, which has yet to grow fond of him but seems to view the Wisconsin Congressman as a bona fide conservative. At the same time, Romney wished to inject a degree of youth and energy into his campaign, which has often felt detached and stale, incapable of arousing the enthusiasm even of those voters most disenchanted with President Barack Obama.

Forty-two year old Ryan is known as a tough-talking conservative with a wonkish passion for budget numbers, a distaste for government spending and the social safety net and a craving for the spotlight. But he is also famous in Washington for his extreme workout routine, love of the outdoors and charming demeanor. He is young, full of ideas and vigor and has been up and coming for some time. While his economic views are controversial and could very well pose a risk to the Romney campaign, he has a lot of things going for him, including the fact that he hails from a swing district in Wisconsin that could very well be among the most decisive in November.

The “chemistry” appears to be working for now: the pair is said to get along very well and Romney seems to truly enjoy the company of his running mate. The problem, however, may be the very similarities between the two members of the presidential ticket. Now that Ryan has been selected as the vice-presidential candidate and is likely to become one of the faces of the Republican Party for decades to come, his pick by Romney casts a shadow on the future of the GOP and its ability to keep up with and continue to represent a changing America. “There is not much diversity, whether its gender, ethnicity or class, on the Republican side,” says Joel Goldstein, a law professor at St. Louis University and America’s foremost expert on the vice-presidency. “The only kind of diversity is religious, with a Mormon and a Roman Catholic [Romney’s and Ryan’s faith respectively.]”

Liberal commentator Joan Walsh recently called the Romney/Ryan ticket “white and whiter.” During Romney’s VP selection process, others had dubbed this the “double vanilla” scenario (a definition that would have also applied to short-listed candidates Ohio Senator Rob Portman and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty.)

In a country that is increasingly female and non-white, this is not a forward-looking choice. Already in 2011, women comprised 50.8% of the American population and ethnic minorities made up 37%. The latter in particular is a fast growing demographics. For the first time in 2011, a majority of American infants under one year of age were non-white. They will be eligible to vote in another 17 years, when, if all goes well, Ryan still expects to be riding the Republican wave.

Additionally, while his wealth pales in comparison to Romney’s, Ryan is not what one would call working-class. He was born the son of one of the most prominent families in Janesville, Illinois. There, in 1884, his great-grandfather created a construction company that now operates nation-wide (Ryan’s father and grandfather chose to depart from this line of work and became lawyers.) As an adult, Ryan married into a powerful Oklahoma family. In post-recession America, where the median household wealth was calculated to be just less than $67,000 in 2010 and the median household income around $52,000, Ryan and his wife have an estimated net worth of $4.5 million and declared a 2011 income of around $323,000, which puts them in the top 5% of earners. Furthermore, having spent his entire career in Washington politics, with only a brief stint working in marketing for the family business, Ryan’s wealth is not even self-made. A large chunk of it comes from a trust inherited from his mother-in-law a couple of years ago. It would be hard to claim that he represents the American dream that politicians of all stripes like to talk so much about.

From the standpoint of diversity, therefore, the Romney/Ryan ticket is a step back from the 2008 campaign, when John McCain chose a young, working-class woman from a far-flung state to be his running mate (Sarah Palin turned out to be such a bad candidate that she probably made it more, not less, difficult for other young Republican women to be picked after her.) “I think this is a problem for the GOP, they are going to have issues with Hispanic voters and other minorities,” says Professor Goldstein. “On the other hand, when you are picking a running mate you are selecting between available alternatives; everybody would like to choose a composite figure, a Hispanic woman who is a five-star general and has been elected three times in Ohio.”

There were several short-listed candidates for the VP-slot who would have brought more diversity to the GOP ticket (Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez and a few others.) But they might have had other and bigger downsides that, during the vetting process, convinced Romney to go Ryan’s way. It’s hard to tell exactly what happened but it is possible that choosing a wealthy white guy for a running mate was more the result of lack of alternatives than a deliberate choice on Romney’s part.

Not everybody agrees that the “double vanilla” ticket is even a problem at all. “We should not be criticizing the pick based on gender and ethnicity but based on qualifications,” says Richard Benedetto, a professor of journalism at American University and a former White House correspondent and columnist for USA Today. “The diversity question is a political question, you are either trying to please the media, who would want a diverse choice, or you are trying to please your base that you have to win in order to win the elections.”

Romney’s choice of Ryan and the resulting lack of diversity in the GOP ticket are not necessarily an issue this current election cycle, when approximately 90% of Republican voters are white anyway. But, looking ahead, they mirror possibly the biggest weakness of a party that has consistently failed to open up to new constituencies, remains heavily dependent on the votes of white Evangelical Christians and appears very resistant to the kind of general demographic change that, sooner or later, will come its way as well.