In selecting Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) as his running mate, Mitt Romney may have significantly changed the trajectory of the race and also the GOP. As to the latter, Ryan’s elevation to the ticket has set back the careers of several rising GOP stars and firmly put the party on the reform track.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) made the decision not to run for president in 2012. It wasn’t the “right time.” Maybe President Obama was inevitably going to be reelected. Maybe they needed more experience. For whatever reason, they took themselves out of the presidential race. Then Romney left them off the ticket. Now where do they stand?
Rubio, whom virtually all conservatives reflexively called the “future” of the GOP, is now very much in Ryan’s shadow. Whether Romney-Ryan wins or not, Ryan is now the sweetheart of the base, the admired fighter for the GOP cause against the reviled president and the most prominent ideas man in the party. Rubio, by contrast, hesitated and was then boxed out on immigration reform. He has given tremendous speeches but authored no legislation and has not been a major player in the budget fights. He is, by Ryan’s selection, no longer the “next in line” for conservatives. This doesn't mean his presidential ambitions are over or that he won’t be a major player in the party. It simply means he is now one of many equals looking on at the presidential race.
Christie is a phenomenon, a force of nature whose career took off through a series of YouTube clips featuring his combative style of politics. But less well known, yet more significant in the long run, are his policy achievements in New Jersey and his ability to to remain popular in a deep-blue state. Ryan’s selection still leaves Christie with his gubernatorial perch and with a rhetorical flair unmatched in the party. Now the decision on whether to run for reelection in 2013 looms large. Does he run and risk losing? Does he hang it up and plot a future run for the presidency? Should the GOP lose this year, Christie will be among the most, if not the most, prominent GOP pols with executive experience. As a Washington outsider, he’ll preserve a separate identity and his outside-the-Beltway credentials in a way that Ryan, Rubio and others cannot.
There are the other never-rans and not-selected GOP figures, including Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) The task for them is to remain in the national conversation. Many suspect McDonnell would be on the short list for attorney general in a Romney administration. With the one-term limit on Virginia’s governorship, McDonnell will be out of a job at the end next year and have the challenge of finding a spot that puts to good use his strong ties to social conservatives and his image as a can-do governor.
Ryan got a promotion few expected. It’s as if an up-and-comer had been elevated to the executive suite in a business, and former colleagues are left scrambling, jockeying for position and assessing how they, too, can make the climb. The quest for prominence begins with speeches at this convention. And the lesson learned is that if one hesitates and waits for the magic moment to rise, it may never come.
As for the ideological direction of the party, Romney, and more so Ryan, have chosen a reform path that is, in fact, less conservative than that of Republicans of days gone by. They are devoted to saving liberal-created entitlement programs. They don’t want to reduce in absolute terms the size of the budget, just turn down the rate of increase. But they are bold in ambition and as far from the Bill Buckley Jr. conservative model ( “standing athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!’ ”) as a conservative can be. They have reinforced an intellectual, rather than intuitive, style of politics and have, as the tea party has done (and despite the efforts of President Obama and the media), continued to focus the party on fiscal rather than social issues. The question for up-and-coming Republicans will now be: What’s your plan on [fill in the blank]? In that regard Ryan has made the party for this cycle and maybe for future ones more aggressive, more wonkish and less focused on personality. Who says VP’s don’t matter?