In terms of both campaigning and governing, Mitt Romney has made an excellent choice in Paul Ryan.
I think the question of why Ryan appealed to Romney is a little different from the question of why Romney picked him. To the first question, Bob Costa offered a very plausible answer last week: Ryan is the kind of person that Romney has hired throughout his career—a high IQ, creative, supremely articulate wonk who is young and looks even younger. Look at Romney’s staff. I think this kind of hiring instinct, more than complex political calculations about particular states or constituencies, explain most of the recent running-mate selections in both parties. Candidates choose the sort of person they have always been inclined to hire. But that doesn’t mean Romney consciously set out to find that type among his options. I think his specific reason for picking Ryan was probably a lot simpler than most of today’s fancy analysis suggests. If the most knowledgeable policy thinker among your party’s elected officials also happened to be basically the best communicator among them, you would probably want him on your presidential ticket. There could hardly be much doubt that this is the case regarding Paul Ryan, and it is to Romney’s great credit that he saw that and acted on it.
Many of the instant analyses of the implications of the pick also strike me as a bit too fancy. It must be true to some degree that Romney recognized that picking Ryan meant his campaign would need to become a little more focused on policy than it has been, and I certainly hope that happens. But I suspect Romney chose Ryan to help him run a better and stronger version of the campaign he has already been running: One focused above all on Obama’s economic failures and their implications for the country’s future, and which uses its own policy proposals to convey a sense of competence and direction more than to broadcast very specific intentions.
Romney knows that he has largely failed to convey that sense so far because his various policy proposals have not been sufficiently tied together by an overarching understanding of the country’s problems—one that grabs voters where they are and shows them how Obama’s failures on jobs and growth connect to his disastrous increases in spending and debt and to his unprecedented expansions of government’s power and role to pose a grave threat to America’s future. The ability to tell that story, and to do it in the language of the American middle class family, is what Paul Ryan brings to the table. That ability, even more than his unusual (for an elected official) ability to understand complicated Medicare spreadsheets and the like, is what has elevated Ryan to such prominence in his party, and what has informed and enabled his more wonky pursuits. That ability, combined with an innate decency and Midwestern personality that defies all vilification, has allowed him to advance conservative arguments and a conservative agenda more effectively than any member of Congress since Jack Kemp. It will do the Romney campaign a world of good.
I’m not sure it will mean that the campaign puts out more detailed alternatives to Obamacare or a more fully fleshed out tax or education plan. I hope so, but I wouldn’t bet on it. I do, though, think it will mean the campaign will advance its basic case on the issue that matters most to voters—the issue of jobs and the economy—far more effectively in the coming weeks, and will better help voters see how it connects to the other things that trouble them about the Obama years and how all of these are problems that can be remedied.
The basic contention of critics of the Ryan pick, mostly on the Left but some on the Right as well, is that the Obama campaign will more than neutralize all this by directing its attention and energy even further from that issue of greatest concern to voters. Now, they say, the Obama campaign can really get negative and tie Romney to all manner of nasty ideas supposedly contained in the Republican budgets that Ryan has proposed in recent years. I guess we will hear that these budgets have somehow been responsible for the cancer deaths of all sorts of factory workers’ wives and the like. I’ve had the sense all year that the Democrats think this kind of thing will work because they imagine that this is how Republicans win elections—they really think this is what the swiftboaters were doing, and is why Bush beat Kerry, for instance, and they’re pleased to finally see one of their own getting tough. But they should ask themselves if they didn’t pay some kind of price in 2010 for spending the first two years of the Obama era focused on something other than jobs and the economy, and if they might not pay a price again for appearing to do the same thing again—this time in the form of preposterous and vile attacks on two candidates whose personalities and family lives seem to have been pulled straight out of the 1950s. Maybe that’ll work, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
Attempts to tie Romney to some specific long-term spending cuts in the Ryan budget don’t seem that plausible either—is a presidential candidate liable for every position his running mate has held? That certainly hasn’t been the usual standard. Romney can easily say, as indeed he has, that he supports the goals of the Ryan budget—economic growth and job growth, fiscal restraint, lower deficits and debt, and saving from bankruptcy the programs that help the most vulnerable Americans—but is open to various means of achieving those goals and has his own ideas regarding a number of them. That has always been Ryan’s own attitude, after all. He has attached himself to various different reform plans over the years, all of which share those goals but attempt to achieve them in rather different ways. What exactly is the smoking gun here?
The answer to that question will most often be Medicare—which is the one clear instance in which Romney has endorsed the particular approach of the Ryan budget, with just a few twists of his own (having especially to do with Ryan’s retaining some spending cuts in the first ten years, not with the premium-support reforms that begin after that). But of course, Romney had already endorsed this idea well before he chose Ryan, so having Ryan by his side to make the case for it would seem to strengthen rather than weaken his prospects of breaking through the Democrats’ demagogic efforts to somehow scare seniors who would actually in no way be affected by the Romney-Ryan reform. There is no question that choosing Ryan reinforces Romney’s commitment to the Medicare proposal at the heart of the GOP budget. (And more on that in a later post). It suggests he really means it. This, to me, is just about the best thing about the pick, and it is what scares assorted political consultants most about it. But it’s a matter of Romney taking ownership of a position he has already declared and would have been pressed on anyway, and putting on his team the person best able to defend it—not a matter of pinning Romney to a Ryan position that he has not claimed as his own. Doing that won’t be so easy.
It therefore seems to me that on balance Romney has done himself a world of good with this pick. He has recruited as his first and foremost surrogate the Republican politician best able to articulate the conservative case against Obama and best able to defend Romney’s most gutsy and controversial policy proposal. And he has picked someone who would make a great vice president too.
The Democrats think their incumbent president can win reelection by distracting people from the bad economy through a campaign focused on Romney’s wealth and Ryan’s Medicare proposal. Whatever you think of that rather peculiar and cynical strategy, the Romney campaign seems a good bit better able to answe
r it today than yesterday.
Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.