In his own way, Mitt Romney went bold with his choice of Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin to join him as the vice presidential candidate on the Republican Party ticket. After all the talk about Ohio Senator Rob Portman and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, Romney decided to pass on vanilla and go right to “Rocky Road,” if you were to compare picking a running mate to choosing an ice cream flavor.
Ryan brings youth (he’s 42), boldness and an articulate and attractive bearing as the Republican vice presidential pick. Conservatives are thrilled because they love Ryan’s long term economic vision that goes after the debt by cutting the size of the federal government and enacts tax cuts designed to grow the economy, very much along the lines of the Ronald Reagan model of the 1980’s.
Those conservatives who have long doubted whether Romney is really one of them are giving him credit for taking on Ryan when he could have gone with any number of safer picks that would be harder for the Democrats to attack. Conservatives may never come to love Mitt Romney, but they can fall in love with Paul Ryan even if he’s only the number two on the ticket.
Ryan’s pros and cons
On one hand, Ryan will energize Republican Party conservatives to get a little more excited about this year’s election. Granted they didn’t need much prodding anyway, because the unifying theme for Republicans in the final weeks of the campaign will be to defeat Barack Obama no matter what. But the addition of Ryan to the ticket gives them an excuse to get really excited in the kind of way they are known to when a true-blue conservative is part of the team — like Ronald Reagan when he ran in 1980.
Ryan should do well in the one vice presidential debate with incumbent Joe Biden. At least there won’t be the kind of teeth-gnashing Republicans had four years ago before Sarah Palin’s debate with Biden when they were truly worried she would make a gaffe big enough to sink John McCain’s presidential campaign. This time, the worry might be that Biden will be able to flush out Ryan’s plans to dramatically alter the role of government when it comes to social welfare programs like Medicare, the health care program for the elderly, and programs that help the poor like the Medicaid health care program and food stamps.
In the short term, the Ryan pick looks solid. Romney seems more energized by Ryan’s presence on the campaign trail, though it appears they will be mostly campaigning separately in the weeks before the upcoming Republican National Convention in Tampa that begins August 27th. And to the extent that this year’s election turns into a competition to turn out the base vote in each party, the Ryan pick could score with Republicans who have until now been cool to Romney. Ryan could also help a bit with social conservatives since he has a strong pro-life record in Congress, plus an inspiring self-made family story that includes his overcoming the sudden death of his father when he was 16.
Ryan’s addition to the ticket also puts Wisconsin into play as yet another key swing state this year. Democrats have won Wisconsin in every election since 1988, though they did so narrowly in both 2000 and 2004. Some Republicans also hope Ryan’s appeal will spread to other states in the upper Midwest like Iowa and Michigan, but that remains to be seen.
Democrats ready to pounce
Democrats have their own reasons to be excited about the Ryan pick. Democratic Party strategists believe that Ryan’s authorship of two House Budget Committee budget blueprints gives them plenty of political attack ad fodder for the coming campaign. Some Democrats were crowing that the Ryan choice was the riskiest one politically for Romney because Ryan is so closely tied in to the efforts of House Republicans and Tea Party types to completely restructure the underpinning of the government’s role in subsidizing the social safety net for the poor and the elderly.
The Ryan budgets would transform the Medicare program from the current direct payment system run by the government to a voucher program. Seniors would receive a government payment so they could choose from a variety of private insurance plans to cover their health needs. This would apply to those who are now 55 or younger. Those now 56 and older would continue with the current system.
By some estimates, the giant trust fund that subsidizes the Medicare program is projected to run out of money by 2024, and even some Democrats acknowledge the need to make some changes to Medicare well before the money starts to go. But Medicare remains one of the most popular government programs, and older folks are among the most reliable of voters, so Democratic attacks on Ryan aimed at depicting him and Romney as threats to the future of Medicare could bear fruit unless the Republicans can sharpen their response and counter-attacks.
In theory, Democratic attempts to define Ryan could have a political impact in states with higher proportion of older voters — states like Iowa, Pennsylvania, Ohio and especially Florida, all of which are key battleground states in this year’s elections. So the Democratic dream here is that Ryan becomes a divisive and polarizing pick that could actually jeopardize Romney’s chances to win some key states that he absolutely has to have in order to have any chance of defeating President Obama.
Another point of Democratic attack could be taxes. Ryan favors a simplification of the tax code that would eliminate the current structure and create only two new categories of those who would pay 10 percent on the lower end of the income scale and 25 per cent for everyone else, which critics charge would be a boon mainly to high income earners who currently pay a higher rate.
Ryan’s impact on the campaign
Make no mistake, the addition of Paul Ryan to the GOP ticket makes it more likely that the campaign landscape will broaden in the weeks ahead to a much larger and more substantive debate about the direction of the country and the role of the central government. Up until now Romney was determined to run a campaign based on the notion that this year’s election was a referendum on President Obama and his handling of the economy only.
To some extent, Romney and the Republicans were hoping they could do a rerun of the 1980 campaign Reagan ran against unpopular incumbent Jimmy Carter. Reagan capped his one and only debate with Carter by asking, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”
But in recent months the effective Obama campaign attack machine has been able to shift the focus to Mitt Romney, his business background, his wealth and what Democrats contend is a sense of detachment from the average voter. New polls right before the Ryan announcement showed Romney trailing the president from 7 to 9 points, an indication that Democratic attacks ads both from the Obama campaign and from various allied so-called “super PACS”, or political action committees, were taking a toll on Romney’s approval ratings and his strategy.
Ryan’s addition to the Republican ticket now makes it more likely the debate will revolve around big ideas — the role of government, how to save and transform the popular Medicare program, and most importantly, what direction do people want the country to go in for the next four years.
Do they want to stay with the government-heavy Obama approach, or take a chance on returning to a more Reagan-Bush-like approach where the private sector is emphasized and the role of government is diminished?
(Mitt Romney announced Paul Ryan as his running mate at a rally in Virginia on August 11, photo by James B Currie/flickr.com)