IN THE polarised world of American politics, achieving bipartisan agreement on any topic is a rare feat nowadays. So perhaps it's worth celebrating the fact that, had it been put to a vote, the pick of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney's running-mate likely would've gained support from both parties. Less encouraging is the prospect that both sides will now use Mr Ryan, and his controversial budget plan, to further divide the electorate.
The momentum behind Mr Ryan's candidacy had picked up steam in the past week. Editorials in the Wall Street Journal, Weekly Standard and National Review had urged Mr Romney to select the representative from Wisconsin in order to clear up his own ideological fuzziness and clarify the stakes of the election.
The choice certainly does that. Nothing has defined the Republican agenda more than Mr Ryan's budget proposal, which aims to slash the deficit in the near term and bring the budget into balance by around 2040. Noble goals both, but in order to achieve these ends, the Congressional Budget Office says the plan would decimate nearly all government programmes except for Social Security, health care and defence by 2050.
This is unlikely to squelch the caricature of Mr Romney as a heartless elitist. While programmes for the poor would be cut, the "path to prosperity", as Mr Ryan's plan is titled, is paved with tax cuts for businesses and individuals. The plan would also transform Medicare into a voucher system aimed at controlling costs. Democratic attack dogs are salivating. The new ticket will undoubtedly face charges of "ending Medicare as we know it", an attack that was successfully field-tested in an upstate New York House race last year.
With the pick, Mr Romney has shored up his base. But conservatives already seemed rather motivated to boot Barack Obama from office. Will Mr Ryan cost him a share of the centre, just as Sarah Palin did John McCain? Mr Ryan is a different political animal—more substantive and less vitriolic—but coming from the House he is associated with a specific form of conservatism that is all about insurgency, purity and Washington dysfunction. Remember, it was Mr Ryan's polarising budget plan that attempted to scupper an earlier bipartisan deal.
Conservatives are rejoicing. They welcome an honest fight over entitlement reform and the budget. In a contest of personalities, Barack Obama would likely defeat Mr Romney. The poor economy doesn't seem to be taking a toll on the incumbent. But the Republicans feel they have the upper hand if the election is seen as a choice between two divergent views of the role and size of government. Democrats, of course, feel the same way.
Regardless of the merits of Mr Ryan's views, his willingness to deal in the details is admirable. In this way, Mr Romney's pick is a boon to the campaign. Over the next three months, America will have a serious argument about fiscal and governing philosophy. Too bad about the demagoguery that will accompany the debate.