In selecting Paul Ryan as his vice-presidential running mate, Mitt Romney revealed that his campaign was in trouble. Ryan doesn’t guarantee the electoral votes of his home state (Wisconsin is no more likely to vote for Romney now than it was before), doesn’t especially appeal to independents, is a turn-off for seniors, and has almost no name recognition.
But he’s popular with the party’s base or (to be more accurate) with its ascendant right-wing fringe, which has essentially become its base since anything to the left of John Boehner is no longer welcome in the party of Eisenhower, Goldwater and Nixon.
And when you are in trouble as a presidential candidate, your first job is to “solidify your base,” which is what Ryan’s selection does for Romney.
In that respect, Ryan is somewhat like Sarah Palin. They both assure that rabid core of the party faithful that you (the presidential nominee) can probably be trusted, or at least can be tolerated as an alternative to the totally unacceptable incumbent you are trying to unseat.
But the similarities between Ryan and Palin are really minimal. Yes, they were both relatively unknown when selected, but while Palin was only known by a few hundred Americans outside of her home state of Alaska, Ryan is known by several million outside of his home district in Wisconsin.
And, while Palin gave no evidence that she was prepared to hold the nation’s second highest office, Ryan has been at the center of the Washington scene as a veritable policy wonk in a sea of political hacks for over a decade. He is smart enough to understand, and to have a significant plan for taming, the nation’s budget, and is the author of a serious proposal to significantly reduce the federal deficit.
Where he and Palin are similar is in their core ideologies, which are far to the right of the mainstream American voter. Thus, they are both candidates who unite the party’s base, which is a good thing, while they risk turning off the critical swing voters, which is definitely not a good thing.
It was fascinating to see Romney back away from his enthusiastic endorsement of Ryan in their joint “60 Minutes” interview last weekend. After seeming to embrace everything Ryan stood for in the Saturday morning announcement of his selection, Romney wanted to make it clear on Sunday night, that he would have his own budget (and, presumably not adopt Ryan’s Medicare-destroying one) if elected president.
This one was more than a classic Romney flip-flop. If the Ryan budget were to be viewed as his budget (and you can bet the house the Democrats are going to do everything they can to make sure it is), Romney would face a McCain-like defeat in the general election, irrespective of the dissimilarities between Ryan and Palin. Because, however well-intended, and even thoughtful, Ryan’s budget proposal is, it will be viewed with great fear, if not hostility, by a populace that is far more worried about where the jobs are than whether the budget is going to be balanced.
It’s one thing to sound like a deficit hawk and to claim that the national debt is a potential disaster for future generations. But it’s quite another to tell the current generation that Medicare won’t be there when they need it (or, even worse, as the Democrats will claim, that Social Security will also be threatened).
So Ryan solidifies the base and loses Romney the election? Can that have been the calculus that led to his selection?
Probably not. Instead, Romney is trying to draw to an inside straight. Here’s how it would work:
Ryan, bright and articulate as he is, enunciates a well-considered rationale for his budget views. The trend lines for Medicare, Medicaid, and even Social Security, he points out, are terrible. They are, he explains, unsustainable, and moreover, will essentially bankrupt the country in relatively short order (leaving the Armageddon date unspecified).
He’ll then posit the view that his plan doesn’t destroy these social services. Rather, he’ll say, it just makes them self-sufficient by turning the responsibility for them to their recipients. (This is the “voucher” part of his plan, but he won’t call it that.)
He’ll make the argument that America needs to turn back to the concept of individual freedom and responsibility that made it great. (At this point, he’ll try to sound like a modern day Reagan.)
Romney will watch the action more or less from the sidelines until poll numbers either show Ryan’s “education” campaign is working or flaming out. If it’s working, Romney will jump on board with his own, slightly less radical sounding version, thereby attempting to reap the benefits of his running mate’s success. If it isn’t working, Romney will sound much more centrist with respect to the deficit, probably a lot like Obama, but without the tax increases.
Either way, the strategy is to take the focus away from the “Obama stinks” campaign Romney has been pushing to this point—obviously, the campaign has figured out that it, alone, won’t get Romney elected—and replace it with what will sound more hopeful, more positive, and more “American.”
Will it work? Obama’s people (who have figured out what I’ve just presented as the Romney game-changing strategy) are pretty confident that it won’t. They will continue to paint Ryan as a wild-eyed radical and Romney as a desperate flip-flopper who doesn’t even have the courage to release his tax returns. They’ll portray Obama as a solid intellect and a strong leader (expect to see the Osama bin Laden death-watch video about a thousand times) who has done more than anyone could have imagined in the face of complete Republican intransigence.
In the end, the campaign will either dissolve into the typical popularity contest that most of these affairs ultimately become or turn into a debate on the country’s future. If it’s the former, Romney loses. If it’s the latter, he still probably loses, but at least he has a chance.