Finally something both sides can agree on: This changes everything.
In tapping Paul Ryan for the vice-president slot on his ticket, risk-averse Mitt Romney played the riskiest card in his hand. The half-joke last month was that he would pick a boring white guy. The half-joke was only half right.
The House budget chairman is a wonky numbers-cruncher who dares to wave spreadsheets under the voter’s nose. But he is feisty, focused, driven and a reverberating lightening rod of criticism from the left, thanks to his entitlement-slashing budgets, which he says are necessary to avert fiscal disaster.
By picking Ryan, all sides seem to agree, Romney has signaled that the current trend is not in his favor. Had he edged ahead in the polls, he would likely have gone with a safer, quieter choice. Ryan is not safe. He is not quiet. And while he has huge upside, he also has huge liabilities.
“Taking risks like these is not what you do if you think you have a winning hand already,” wrote Nate Silver at the New York Times. “But Mr. Romney, the turnaround artist, decided that he needed to turn around his own campaign.”
NEW VP MODEL
The Ryan choice is unique in modern presidential politics. No other major party nominee has used the VP slot to sharply redefine the ideas facing the electorate.
There are three traditional angles to a vice presidential pick. The first is to stake a claim to a demographic or locale. Think Lyndon Johnson in 1960, putting Texas in play for Kennedy.
Ryan does help balance the ticket. Where Romney’s pedigree says Harvard, Ryan’s says Miami of Ohio. His Catholic, Midwestern roots should have strong appeal to Catholic voters, not just in Wisconsin but also in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The middle class and blue-collar white Catholic vote, which swung to Obama in 2008, should be open to the Romney/Ryan ticket, given a slack job market and the ongoing feud between the church and the Obama administration.
The second angle is to unify the party ideologically after a tough primary: Reagan with George Bush in 1980, or McCain with Sarah Palin in 2008. Ryan will do that. He will mobilize the base, break loose fundraising and volunteers and enable a GOP turnout that otherwise might have languished for lack of purpose.
The third angle is to pick a governing partner with a deep skill set and solid resume, as George W. Bush did with Dick Cheney in 2000. Cheney did nothing for the ticket other than add depth and experience to a candidate short on both. Ryan has some of these virtues. He is, as one operative observed, the kind of numbers-crunching wonk Romney would have mentored at Bain Capital.
The new, fourth angle Romney forged on Saturday is to pick someone who embodies an agenda in such a way that he or she sharply defines the election, making it almost impossible to talk about anything else.
For better or worse, by picking Ryan, Romney has cast his die. He has chosen to make the election a referendum on the budgetary crisis looming over the next generation.
So far, Ryan has struggled to sell his budget philosophy, and Democratic consultants Stan Greenberg and James Carville last month urged the party to attack it — before anyone seriously thought he would be the VP candidate.
“President Obama’s lead against Romney more than doubles when the election is framed as a choice between the two candidates’ positions on the Ryan budget -- particularly its impact on the most vulnerable,” they wrote. “This is an important new finding; highlighting the Ryan budget’s impact on the most vulnerable seriously weakens Romney.”
Romney and Ryan will point to the complete absence of budget leadership on the other side. Democrats in control of the Senate have not passed a budget now for nearly four years, and President Obama’s budgets have been defeated unanimously in the Senate two years in a row — not garnering even a single Democratic vote.
Romney and Ryan’s mission — and they have chosen to accept it — is to drive home to the average voter why muddling through will not fix badly broken actuarial tables, and why taking action now will be cheaper and easier.
One of the most controversial planks of Ryan’s budget is Medicare reform. Few dispute that Medicare is not sustainable in its current form. In one of his senior moments last summer, Newt Gingrich called Ryan’s Medicare plan “right-wing social engineering.” Yet Ryan has worked closely with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., on the plan.
In a nutshell, it turns Medicare from a pure entitlement into a “premium support” model, creating a market for insurance but no longer guaranteeing coverage.
Predictably, Ryan is accused of “throwing granny over the cliff.”
HOPES AND FEARS
Some conservatives are clearly skittish. At Powerline, Steven Hayward responded with a curious piece comparing Romney to Winston Churchill in 1945, who warned his Conservative party to stand firm. “This is no time for humbug and blandishments, but for grim, stark facts and figures, and for action to meet to immediate needs,” Churchill said.
Of course, as Hayward knows full well, Churchill and his party were defeated at the polls that year.
Hayward fears that we may have “the moment when a critical mass of American voters depend on the government for their well-being, and hence will vote to perpetuate the welfare state.” If so, he writes, “the point about Ryan is that we might as well go down with our best.”
More hopeful is the Wall Street Journal’s John Fund, who wrote at National Review, “No doubt there are many Democrats rubbing their hands in glee in contemplation of reviving some version of the ad that featured an actor playing Paul Ryan pushing a grandmother in a wheelchair off a cliff. But the smarter ones are worried.”
Ryan is a smarter, more appealing candidate than they realize, Fund argued, and his ideas are not that extreme. And in his home district, Fund notes, Ryan “routinely wins over two-thirds of the vote. When Obama swept the nation in 2008, he carried Ryan’s district by four points.”
Whether Hayward or Fund is right remains to be seen.