Mitt Romney has opted to go big or go home this election, though potential “game change” candidates have backfired on Republicans before. Paul Ryan may be different.
“Mitt the Massachusetts Moderate” has left the building. In selecting Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan as his running mate, the former Bay State governor has taken a very real political risk with serious implications for his campaign. Romney has long been characterized for his inability to relate, his relatively centrist stances, and his tendency to flip-flop on major policy issues. Ryan couldn’t be more different, renowned on the right for his everyman demeanor, staunch conservative credentials, and unwavering commitment to fiscal responsibility. After Sarah Palin’s vice presidential implosion four years ago, a noncontroversial choice was expected. Given his history, Paul Ryan is anything but.
Like Palin herself, the latest Republican VP candidate comes with significant risks. First elected in 1998, Ryan blunts Mitt Romney’s most potent attack against President Barack Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden at a time when Americans have turned against career politicians. Romney has never held federal office and, barring his term as governor of Massachusetts, can claim life-long experience in the private sector as a venture capitalist. By contrast, Rep. Ryan is an entrenched political figure currently in his seventh term with no post-graduate work history outside the government. Gov. Romney has made much of his not being a Washington insider, but that groundwork—and its impact on voters going forward—may be jeopardized by a Ryan candidacy.
Though the challenger’s main line of attack may be in trouble, the president’s gains some serious firepower from a Romney-Ryan ticket. The Obama campaign’s main charge has been that Romney’s an out of touch elitist more concerned with preserving the wealth of the wealthy than aiding an ailing middle class. His selection of a VP candidate well known for trickle-down fiscal policy, long believed to favor big business and the rich, will only cement that perception. Additionally, it may prove more difficult to capitalize on Romney’s successes as governor in a liberal stronghold while his running mate assaults the logic behind every policy and program he enacted there.
Ryan has also attracted significant controversy for his proposed federal budgets. His first few forays into fiscal policy ended in committee, but an early 2011 proposal buoyed by the surging Tea Party caught national attention. The plan aimed to replace Medicare with a voucher program that would not scale with medical costs, infuriating seniors who felt they would be left without adequate coverage. Many of its other features were likewise toxic to voters and inflamed existing socioeconomic tensions; replacing the corporate tax rate with a flat 8.5% consumption tax and a lower high-end income tax rate of just 25%. Providing Democrats with lethal ammunition concerning conservative priorities, many senior party officials publicly criticized Ryan’s proposal. It passed the GOP-controlled House in a party-line vote, though key figures such as Speaker John Boehner and Rep. Ron Paul voiced serious concerns or opposed the plan in its entirety. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich went so far as to label it “right wing social engineering.” Congressional Democrats ensured its demise in the Senate.
As Romney has already endorsed the Ryan budgets, he’ll have to adapt at least some of their proposals for his own economic blueprint or raise questions about his running mate’s purpose on the ticket. This could prove decisive, given the outrage the budgets unleashed on conservatives. Catholic leaders broke traditional GOP support to scold the congressman, warning that “your budget seems to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand [Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead], rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” Adherence to Ryan’s vision has since been demanded of Republican officials, and even Gingrich was forced to recant his previous dissent. It’s unlikely the public has forgotten, however.
Choosing Ryan is far from a flop, though. The Wisconsinite comes with some substantial perks, not the least of which being the near-automatic support of the Tea Party. Though the movement’s influence has waned as it falls increasingly out of favor with the American public, it remains a key bloc for Republicans that has been slow to warm to Mitt Romney’s candidacy. Paul Ryan, on the other hand, has become one of the movement’s favorite sons for budgets that take a slash-and-burn approach to Democratic initiatives. Romney risks alienating moderate conservatives and independents who believe the Tea Party too extreme, but his VP selection may be enough to satiate the group without requiring concrete policy promises on their behalf.
Hailing from a swing state in a swing region, Ryan can also established a GOP foothold in an area Obama carried easily in 2008. The president’s strong ties to Chicago have helped counter Romney’s own history in Michigan, but a second Republican candidate on the block could split voters’ allegiance. Another advantage Romney: the potential VP’s stature as a fiscal crusader will force the campaigns back onto the economy, potentially right up to November 6th. President Obama has has great success hammering his opponent on a number of fronts, scoring wins on social issues, consistency, and especially Romney’s tenure as CEO of Bain Capital . Ryan will likely frustrate such tactics as he targets economic performance over the past four years. It would be unwise for the president to side-step his charges, opening the door for Romney to claim he’s more serious about playing politics than fixing a sluggish economy. More importantly, the GOP’s resident fiscal architect has more national credence on the issue than a mere venture capitalist. Team Romney should and will come out swinging.
Rep. Paul Ryan may well be the man to salvage a faltering Romney campaign and secure the White House for his party, but serious hurdles remain. An occasional social crusader that may evoke memories of Sen. Rick Santorum, Ryan’s fierce opposition to LGBT rights and same-sex marriage may inflame independents tired of culture wars. He’s a values politician, referring to budgeting as “a moral issue” and insisting that “there is a right and a wrong.” Like his running mate, he has no experience in foreign policy against a president with almost universal praise for his foreign record. Joseph Biden may lack his president’s charisma, but he boasts an arguably more prestigious record in Congress than Ryan, making the vice presidential debate a potential rout. On these issues, only time will tell.
What Americans should take away from the selection is that the gloves are coming off in Boston. Romney’s languished in a five point polling deficit for too long so close to Election Day; a “game change” choice like Gov. Palin isn’t surprising. Paul Ryan will energize conservatives eager to dismantle a government they believe out of control, but he’ll likewise rally liberals who see only a far right fanatic. Democrats have been hoping to tie Romney to Ryan’s proposals for some time, and it looks like Christmas has come early. There’s a quote attributed to Joe Biden that goes, “Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.” Given the apparent divide between the America Romney claims to believe in and that imagined in Ryan’s budgets, Biden may have quite the yarn in store for the public.