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Paul Ryan Struggles With the Inconvenient Demands of Democracy

By       Message John Nichols     Permalink
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Cross-posted from The Nation

Paul Ryan will finally make his way home to Janesville, Wisconsin, Monday. In anticipation of his nomination by the Republican National Convention for vice president, Ryan will headline a "send-off" rally at a local high school. Then he'll try to make it to Tampa as Hurricane Isaac hits.

It's significant that, even as his fellow Republicans rearrange their flight schedules, Ryan will finally find time to visit his hometown -- two weeks after Mitt Romney tapped the House Budget Committee chairman as his running mate. The decision of the Romney-Ryan campaign to hold an initial "homecoming" rally  more than 60 miles from Janesville, a blue-collar town that tends to vote the Democratic line, was duly noted by his constituents.

That's problematic for Ryan, as he will not just be running with Romney in November.

The congressman is actually running two races:

1. As a junior member of the Republican presidential ticket that seeks to remove Democrats Barack Obama and Joe Biden from the White House.

2. As a Congressional incumbent who -- despite his national candidacy -- is still seeking a new term representing southeastern Wisconsin in the US House. Taking advantage of a Wisconsin law that allows contenders on a national ticket to remain on the ballot in their House races, Ryan is running a "have-it-all" re-election campaign that would allow him to stay in the House if the Romney-Ryan ticket loses.

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Ryan's focus is clearly on race No. 1.

The congressman has for all intents and purposes agreed to debate Biden. They're set to face each other October 11 at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, and it should be a great debate. Ryan and the vice president disagree on just about everrything, and they are fundamentally different contenders: Ryan, the multi-millionaire son of privilege whose "rise to political power and financial stability was boosted by family money and connections" (in the words of The Los Angeles Times); Biden, the scrappy working-class kid who made his own way to the top.

But Ryan has yet to agree to debate his challenger in the Wisconsin House race.

In his past House runs, Ryan willingly debated less-viable challengers. But Zerban is mounting a serious race; having raised more than $1 million, organized a volunteer army and spent more than a year working the district while Ryan has been chasing the cameras.

Ryan still has the advantages of incumbency in the House race: a district that was drawn to favor him in the recent partisan redistricting process, one of the largest bankrolls of any Congressional candidate in the country, nightly news coverage of the sort that pushes him toward 100 percent name recognition.

But Zerban is making this a real contest.

Ryan should respect that fact, just as he should respect the voters of Janesville and the other communities that make up the First Congressional District enough to come home more than once, campaign for their votes and debate Zerban..

Ryan and Zerban have fundamentally different positions on the issues. Ryan wants to undermine Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid with what former House Speaker Newt Gingrich refers to as "right-wing social experimentation," while Zerban would preserve these programs. Ryan opposes meaningful healthcare reforms that would expand access to care while cutting costs, while Zerban supports the real reform of a "Medicare for All" program. Ryan supports free-trade deals and manufacturing policies that have led to the shuttering of major industrial facilities in Janesville (a General Motors plant), Kenosha (a Chrysler plant) and Oak Creek (a Delphi plant) during the course of his Congressional tenure, while Zerban favors fair trade policies designed to protect jobs, communities and the environment. Ryan advocates for narrowing the definition of rape as part of an aggressive push to limit reproduction rights, while Zerban supports a woman's right to choose.

And Zerban's story of working his way up from humble roots to business success provides a stark contrast to Ryan's life-of-privilege story.

The Ryan-Zerban debate has the potential be every bit as good as the Biden-Ryan debate. The question is whether Paul Ryan respects his Wisconsin constituents enough to join the debate -- and to actually ask for their votes.

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John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Online Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated internationally, quoted in numerous books and mentioned in debates on the floor of Congress.

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