Ryan's world: Fears for future in VP candidate's hometown
- 10 October 2012
- From the section US & Canada
The Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan wants to transform the size and role of the US government by making individuals more responsible for themselves. What do residents in his hometown think of his vision?
The Kutter Harley Davidson store in Janesville, Wisconsin, is a Harley fanatic's fantasy. Lined up along one side of the car park is a row of lovingly maintained examples of the iconic motorcycle.
At the end of the line is a smaller, ivory-coloured model. It has a low seat and a saddlebag bedecked with tiny rhinestones, which also circle its speedometer.
"I had to bling it out," chuckles the bike's owner, Loreen MacDonald, a 51-year-old mother of two, who doesn't fit the biker stereotype.
As passers-by glance admiringly at her Harley Fat Boy, she tells me she only started riding motorcycles at 45, inspired by her bike-loving husband and two sons.
"This is a new, much lower version," she explains, giving me a guided tour of the newest addition to her family.
"They've put in what they call a reach seat, so your legs have more room to hit the ground."
Like many of the people at the Fall Open House event, a typically low-key small-town gathering, with a local band and a catering van advertising "dang fine ribs", Ms MacDonald is thinking about her future and when she retires.
Janesville's highest profile citizen, the US Republican Party's vice-presidential candidate, Congressman Paul Ryan, has been thinking about America's future too - and particularly what the country can afford in the years ahead.
His idea of radically overhauling what are known as America's entitlement programmes began life as an unheralded deficit reduction plan on the fringes of Republican Party thinking.
Over time and with modifications, it has become a very popular Republican view, largely embraced by the party's presidential candidate, Mitt Romney.
A key part of the Romney-Ryan plan is to change the government-administered Medicare programme, which provides healthcare to Americans over 65.
Instead of paying into a purely state-run scheme that covers all health costs, people would use vouchers to choose between a private insurance plan or a plan similar to traditional Medicare.
The changes would apply to anyone under 55 now.
The implications of this are not merely economic. By giving individuals a greater role in managing their care as they grow old, the plan would bring a fundamental shift in their relationship with government.
Depending on your point of view, that is either a triumph for personal freedom or a worrying abdication of governmental responsibilities.
Mr Ryan got a rousing reception at the Republican Convention in Tampa when he said his vision for smaller government was better than the alternative, which relied on the "supervision and sanctimony of the central planners".
Ms MacDonald's instinct is to distrust the federal authorities, although she doesn't have a philosophical aversion to relying on the state. An accountant who enjoys travelling to work on her low-riding Fat Boy, she's worried about the help she will get when she retires.
"I'm 51, so where does that put me?" she asks. "I'm at the far end of the spectrum, where I've paid in all these years since I'm 16, but will the safety net be there when I need it?"
Janesville, a comfortable, if unremarkable town of 65,000 people, located near a series of major Mid-Western highways, produces politicians who aren't afraid to stand out from the crowd.
Besides Mr Ryan, Janesville's most famous political son is former Democratic Senator Russ Feingold. He was the lone senator to vote against the post-9/11 security legislation called the USA Patriot act, considering it an infringement of civil liberties.
And the idea of liberty is on the mind of some of those at the Harley Davidson event. Take Nate, for example. He's such an individual that he arrived on a different make of motor bike, a Triumph.
"We need true freedom," he tells me, when I ask him what he thinks of Mr Ryan's ideas. "Freedom economically, freedom socially. The government should stay out of our business."
But others are less sure. One of the bikers, who didn't identify himself (he described himself as a "Democratic or independent" voter), laments:
"Ryan wants to put more on to the individual. The way I look at it, it's going to change too much for me, in the wrong direction. I'm not looking forward to it."
People speak very warmly about Mr Ryan in Janesville: a place where the extended Ryan family has wide and deep roots, stretching back to the mid 19th Century.
At the modern Roman Catholic church, which the congressman still regularly attends with his family, Barb Smith tells me, approvingly, that he "still dresses like the ordinary people".
She remembers Mr Ryan judging a recent pie contest, noting that the politician, famed for his punishing P90X fitness regime, didn't seem much of a pie eater.
But, according to Alan Borsuk, senior fellow of law and public policy at Marquette Law School in Milwaukee, polling done for the law school suggests that warm local feelings don't necessarily translate into widespread approval of Mr Ryan's plans.
"A substantial majority of people in Wisconsin want to keep things the way they are," he says.
"People are very contradictory. They want to hold down the federal budget, but when you ask whether they want to cut Medicare or Social Security, they really don't want that."
Still, he accepts that there is a general and, he believes, bipartisan anti-government mood in the air.
That is a consequence of the kind of economic upheaval which saw Janesville's local GM car plant cease production in 2009 (the decision was made in 2008 before Mr Obama entered the White House), with the loss of approximately 5,000 jobs.
"There is a widespread feeling that things aren't what they used to be," says Mr Borsuk.
"In Milwaukee you can name 20 factories that have closed down. There's a sense that the government isn't running things properly. You see it on the right with the Tea Party and you saw it on the left with the Occupy Wall Street movement."
A popular t-shirt at the Harley Davidson event depicts a bunch of elderly bikers, with the letters AARP - the NGO which represents retired Americans - redefined as "Aged Adults Riding Proud"
These days, among America's ageing adults, that pride is mixed with uncertainty - uncertainty about the ability of any politician to guarantee the comfortable retirement which previous generations took for granted.