Advancing a Free Society

Ryan's Expressed Purpose

Saturday, August 11, 2012

I’ll admit: cynic that I am, I didn’t see this one coming.

Mitt Romney is a cautious politician by nature (some would say: more a technocrat than a politician). He didn’t lack for cautious (i.e., safe) vice-presidential picks. Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor would fall into that category (the second time Pawlenty has been a finalist for the ticket), as would Ohio Sen. Rob Portman.

What, then, prompted Romney to throw the long ball and go with Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan?

Romney, in making the announcement, praised his running mate’s intellect and ability to work across the aisle. Over at The National Review’s website, Robert Costa explains how Ryan fits the profile of a Romney Bain hire – young, smart, uber-confident, career-wise upwardly mobile.

My question: was Romney’s decision based on preference or necessity? In other words, is Ryan on the GOP ticket because Romney wanted him, or because he had to have him to stand a chance to fall?

Or, was it a matter of the two intersecting?

Look back at the four times an elected presidential incumbent has been given the heave-ho over the past century and you’ll find two common traits: personality and transformative ideas. Theodore Roosevelt (he didn’t win in 1912, but cost William Howard Taft the election), Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton all oozed charm and persona.

And each offered a dramatic departure.

In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt called for the prohibition of child labor, a minimum wage for women and (surprising for an environmentalist) developing Alaska’s natural resources.  In 1932, FDR veered sharply to the left with his New Deal (a phrase he borrowed). In 1980, Reagan made the same dramatic departure, this time to the right. Bill Clinton didn’t offer revolutionary thought in 1992 – his “transformation” was selling the American people on the concept of a grown-up Democratic Party (welfare reform, defense hawks).

Romney’s not going to win this election by virtue of a charm offensive. He needs a big idea in order to make the contest a choice between continuity and change. Ryan’s presence on the ticket – bringing with him a new focus on budget, Medicaid and entitlement reform – gives the Republicans the policy oomph they were lacking.

Some random thoughts on what else the pick means:

1)  The Map Just Shrunk. Had Romney chosen Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, we’d be talking about what it means to Hispanic voters in the Mountain West (Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico). With Ryan, we turn instead to the Upper Midwest (his native Wisconsin takes on added importance) and Florida (look for the Democrats to scare every gullible senior citizen living within a 50-mile radius of Boca Raton . . . how long before a reprise of the granny-over-the-cliff ad?). For Romney, this is where the election will be won or lost.

2)  Youth Appeal? Born just 29 days into the decade of the 1970s, the 42-year-old Ryan is, by definition, a Gen Xer. He also has a story (more ordinary than Romney) that his generation can relate to – lives with his wife and three kids in a riverfront city in southeastern Wisconsin, lost his father when he was just sixteen (fatal heart attack), is a bow-hunter, reportedly listens to Led Zeppelin and Rage Against the Machine, is addicted to P90X workouts, once drove the Wienermobile. Ryan’s candidacy tests the theory that younger voters are hungry for an adult message from a likeable messenger (here’s a lengthier profile of the man).

3)  Press Responsibility. Will the election actually become a serious debate of big ideas? That’s largely for the media to decide. The Obama campaign has deftly managed the election’s narrative by making mountains out of non-economic molehills like Romney’s tax returns. It’s a junk ball approach made easer by the media’s willingness to take the bait – the same media that lament candidates avoiding knotty problems like entitlement reform. If two months from now, the talk’s not about Medicaid reform but some Wisconsin couple claiming Ryan went on a bow-hunting spree in a petting zoo, then we’ll know the process is broken – with both politicos and reporters sharing the blame.

4)  Breaking New Ground. This is only the second time that a Catholic’s been on the GOP ticket (the other being William Miller, Barry Goldwater’s running mate in 1964). Not that Ryan was Romney’s only Catholic option: he could turned to Rubio, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez – not to mention Jeb Bush, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. If he wins, Ryan will take the vice presidential oath just nine days before his 43rd birthday – putting him in the same neighborhood as Dan Quayle (41 years, 351 days when he became veep), Richard Nixon (40 years, 11 days), Theodore Roosevelt (42 years, 128 days), John C. Calhoun (41 years, 351 days) and the esteemed Daniel D. Tompkins (42 years, 256 days).

By the way, that list of Republicans candidates waiting in the wings (and maybe rooting for Romney to lose) is a long as it is Catholics. As is the list of winners and losers as a result of Romney’s choice.

My two winners: the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, which argued Ryan’s case (as did The Weekly Standard). Those fans of democracy that think, with only 87 days remaining until the election, there are more pressing concerns than Bain Capital and horse dressage.