READY TO LEAD: US congressman and Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan gestures at the podium  ahead of his address to the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, on Wednesday. Picture: REUTERS
US congressman and Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan. Picture: REUTERS

PRESIDENTIAL elections can turn on trivia. So the fact that Paul Ryan, the Republicans’ vice-presidential candidate, has lied about having run a marathon in less than three hours, could be bizarrely important.

At last week’s GOP convention, Ryan was introduced as a fearless truth-teller. The Democrats argued that, in fact, his speech contained lies about everything from Medicare to the closure of a car plant.

But Medicare reform is hard to grasp. By contrast, lopping a full hour off your marathon time, is readily understandable. It makes Ryan look both ridiculous and dishonest. The Democrats will have a field day with the marathon man at their own convention this week.

The gaffe is all the more irritating for the Republicans, because they have just had a very successful convention. In Tampa last week, the GOP locked its mad uncles in the attic — with the exception of Clint Eastwood. There was very little talk about religion, abortion, immigration, Barack Obama’s birth certificate or the threat of sharia law being imposed on Michigan.

Instead, the Republicans hammered away at a single theme. They are the party that embodies the optimism and rugged individualism of the American dream. By contrast, Obama was portrayed as somebody who thinks all good things come from government and denigrates individual effort.

If Obama is to win re-election, he will have to repel this assault, by making the case for government. He will have to defend his economic stimulus. He will have to stand up for "Obamacare". He will have to reclaim the most powerful and seductive idea in US politics — the American dream.

This is a very delicate task. The potential for mishap is underlined by an ad-libbed speech Obama made a couple of months ago, in which he seemed to mock the efforts of small-business owners. The fatal phrase Obama used — "you didn’t build that" — was emblazoned all over the Republican convention. A succession of small-business owners was brought in to assert, in indignant terms, that they had indeed "built it".

The Democrats’ defence is that the president was merely talking about the need for government to provide vital services, such as infrastructure. They insist his remarks were ripped out of context.

But, in truth, they don’t sound too great in context, either. Obama sneered at successful people, who think "well it must just be because I was so smart". A political gaffe is most dangerous when it seems to confirm what voters already suspect. And Obama was vulnerable to the idea that he has scant sympathy with the strivings of the little guy.

But some of the ammunition Obama will need to fire back at his opponents — and to make the case for government — could be found at the Republican convention itself. The first night was staged against the backdrop of a huge portrait of Neil Armstrong, who had died on the eve of the meeting. But Armstrong made it to the moon, not because he "followed his dream" and founded a small business — but because the government put him there. What is the difference between Nasa, the revered space agency, and the dreaded "central planners" derided by Ryan? The would-be vice-president argued that Obama has embraced alien European ideas that individuals are limited by their social circumstances. "I never thought of myself as stuck in some station in life", he boasted. But then Ryan and Mitt Romney were born into comfortable circumstances, although both men did their best to emphasise anything resembling a struggle in their lives.

By contrast Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state, who was born as a black girl in segregated Alabama, made much less fuss of her much more remarkable story. Perhaps because she really has made it from the toughest of backgrounds, Rice was prepared to accept an idea that Ryan derided — that social circumstances make a difference. Now a professor at Stanford University, she asked: "When I can look at your zip code and tell whether you are going to get a good education, can I really say it doesn’t matter where you come from?" Correcting this inequality of opportunity, said Rice, is the "civil rights issue of our time". It is hard to see how it can be done, without some form of government intervention or reform.

Press a little harder and further inconsistencies are revealed in the Republican position. The party’s vocal defence of government-funded healthcare for the elderly (Medicare) is inconsistent with the notion of a US in which the government’s main role is simply to get out of the way.

Obama can and will make these points. But, even as he stomps on his opponent’s arguments, he will have to be careful not to tread on the American dream. The idea of the "land of opportunity", where an individual is free to make his own way, remains inspiring — far more inspiring than the notion of a social safety net. The case he must make is that the government is the friend of the American dream, not its enemy.

It would be nice to believe that the US election will ultimately turn on this profound debate about the role of the government. But it is just as likely to turn into a battle of the gaffes: Obama’s "you didn’t build that" against Ryan’s three-hour marathon.

© 2012 The Financial Times Limited