By Harlan Ullman
In 1998 Steven Spielberg’s hit film “Saving Private Ryan” was released. In it, Tom Hanks played U.S. Army captain John Miller who, shortly after the June 6th, 1944 Normandy landings was ordered to lead a small team of American soldiers to find and rescue Private James Ryan played by Matt Damon. Unknown to Ryan/Damon who had parachuted into Normandy and was well behind enemy lines, his three brothers had all been killed in action that very week and the American brass was determined that at least one Ryan would survive the war.
Last week, American politics emulated the movies but in reverse. Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney selected Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan to be his running mate. In essence, Ryan was being tapped as Tom Hanks was, in this instance to save Private Romney trapped deep behind enemy Democratic lines and set up as a target for the heaviest political fire the Obama campaign could rain down. In the movie, Ryan/Damon survived but Miller/Hanks did not. One can wonder about what will happen in real life and who the political survivors will be.
Despite Republican rhetoric and propaganda spin, Mr. Romney’s campaign so far has not caught fire nor stirred the nation. Indeed, within the White House and the Obama campaign, virtually all the polls show the president with a substantial lead so much so that the decision has been made to limit appearances inPennsylvaniabecause the Obama-Biden ticket is so far ahead. And apparently the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has decided to focus on senatorial and gubernatorial races rather than the contest for1600 Pennsylvania Avenuegiven what their polling has told them.
So can Ryan save Private Romney? Or will the Democrats do to Paul Ryan what happened to Captain Miller in the flick? Or will the Ryan pick simply be a one or two day story? The answers can best be found metaphorically in another movie—James Cameron’s 1997 “Titanic.”
Titanic as we all know was the super ocean liner of her day, briefly. Built at the Harland and Wolff yards in Belfast, RMS Titanic, billed as “unsinkable,” left Southampton, Englandon April 15th a hundred years ago with 2224 passengers and crew aboard. Colliding with an iceberg, Titanic quickly proved to be anything but unsinkable taking 1502 souls to the bottom of theAtlantic with her.
Today, the United State shas struck several economic, political and strategic icebergs. The economy is struggling and the nation is drowning in $16 trillion of debt while Europe grapples with its problems and the future of the Euro and China’s economic fortunes appear to be waning. Overseas, America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have proven untenable and unaffordable. The Middle East is in chaos as the civil war in Syria continues to kill tens of thousands. Iran’s nuclear ambitions raise the prospect of Israeli military strikes with or without American help and Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s comments last week raised the stakes about the seriousness of that threat.
But where are Captain Obama and Private Romney or indeed the Republican and Democratic parties in addressing these vital issues or even in attempting to repair the damage done to the ship of state after these collisions? Both sides are distorting (although lying may be more accurate) the other’s positions on all issues from health care to plans to restart the economy as well as how much and who to tax to pay for the explosion in costs in the federal budget while doing so in a “revenue neutral” manner.
Elections are not, as former Vermont Governor Howard Dean reminds us, about educating the public and have not been since George Washington’s day. Elections are about winning. And in today’s 24/7 media world, negative campaigning tragically has proven to be an effective if not repulsive means to that end.
While hope springs eternal, reality takes hold and those who hope that the forthcoming presidential and vice presidential debates can change the tenor and character of the campaign will be sadly disappointed. “Doing no harm” will be the key measure of success in those debates, not a candid exchange of substantative ideas and alternative programs. And no matter who wins in November, Congressional elections will not give either party control of both houses of Congress with 60 seats in the Senate to guarantee legislative action on any promises, workable or not.
So, unless the world turns upside down, Mr. Ryan may not be able to save Private Romney. And, even if he could, there is the small matter of governing to resolve these most pressing problems and crises. This is not the happiest of pictures. But sadly it is the most realistic.
Harlan Ullman is Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business and Senior Advisor at WashingtonDC’s Atlantic Council.