By making Rep. Paul Ryan his running mate, Mitt Romney guaranteed that this will be a big election. The Ryan budget plan will be front and center. Romney now owns its every number, policy and semicolon — unless he specifically says otherwise.
For that reason, the choice was bold. The 2012 election is now about whether the country believes that cuts in Medicare, deep reductions in programs for the poor and steep cuts in taxes for the wealthy are necessary for growth and prosperity. President Obama’s campaign is already running a sober advertisement framing the election as a referendum on this formula. For all the negative ads we will see, a great deal of substance — indeed, a fundamental choice — will underlie the rest of the campaign.
But Romney’s need to make such a bold choice is also a sign of weakness. Candidates confident in their position don’t go for boldness. They make a choice for balance, or to carry a state, or that reinforces their own persona.
Thus did Ronald Reagan pick George H.W. Bush in 1980 to appeal to GOP moderates. In 1992, Bill Clinton picked Al Gore to reinforce his own strengths: young, Southern, New Democrat.
But Romney picked Ryan because he was under intense pressure from right-wing elements of the Republican Party to prove, yet again, that he is truly a conservative. Romney has been trying to prove this ever since he announced his candidacy. Because he has been lagging in the polls, the right felt free to pressure him some more. Now, the right will back the ticket with enthusiasm. This really is the go-for-broke choice that conservatives were looking for. But the cost is that Romney will be unable to make a new appeal to the political center. And by passing on Sen. Rob Portman, Romney gives up an opportunity to strengthen himself in Ohio, a state that he absolutely needs to win and where he has been running behind.
The outcome of this election is now hugely consequential. If the Romney-Ryan ticket wins, conservatives will claim a mandate for Ryan’s radical budget ideas. But if Obama wins, conservatives will no longer be able to argue that the public was given a tepid choice by a philosophically inconstant Romney. A rejection of Romney-Ryan would be a huge blow to the conservative agenda. It will settle the argument over the role of government that we have been having since Barack Obama took the oath of office. This election really and truly matters.
UPDATE, 1:40 p.m.
The Romney campaign is clearly very sensitive about the argument that I made above — and that others, of course, are also making: that Romney now owns the Ryan budget. Here, courtesy of CNN, is a Q-and-A being distributed as part of the campaign’s talking points:
1.) Does this mean Mitt Romney is adopting the Paul Ryan plan?
Gov. Romney applauds Paul Ryan for going in the right direction with his budget, and as president he will be putting together his own plan for cutting the deficit and putting the budget on a path to balance.
Romney’s administration will go through the budget line by line and ask two questions: Can we afford it? And, if not, should we borrow money from China to pay for it?
Note that the campaign doesn’t actually give a direct answer to the question it asked itself.
And then there was this:
2) Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have different views on some policy areas — like Medicare spending, entitlement reform, labor, etc. — do you think those differences are going to hurt or help?
Of course they aren’t going to have the same view on every issue. But they both share the view that this election is a choice about two fundamentally different paths for this country. President Obama has taken America down a path of debt and decline. Romney and Ryan believe in a path for America that leads to more jobs, less debt and smaller government. So, while you might find an issue or two where they might not agree, they are in complete agreement on the direction that they want to lead America.
Again, the Romney camp does not specify in its answer exactly where Romney disagrees with Ryan. It just mentions general areas of disagreement in its question.
If Romney really wants to separate himself from Ryan’s views and his budget, he will have to get a lot more specific than this. And journalists, one would expect, will be pressing Romney hard to offer specifics on the very questions the campaign itself posed.
And thanks to my colleague Greg Sargent for pointing out the existence of these talking points in his own thoughtful take on the Ryan pick.
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