The news that Mitt Romney has chosen Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as his vice presidential nominee today in Norfolk, Virginia amounts to a decidedly bold stroke for the typical risk-averse GOP presidential candidate, a pick that will almost certainly turn the race into a choice between two competing — and strikingly contrasting — visions for the country.
Ryan, a seven term Congressman from Wisconsin, has emerged from (relative) obscurity in the last several years to become the intellectual and policy center of the Republican party thanks in large part to the budget proposal he has offered that would, among other things, fundamentally re-shape Medicare and other social safety net programs in an attempt to get the country’s fiscal house in order.
While that proposal has won him kudos among Republicans, it’s turned him into something of a whipping boy for Democrats, who insist that Ryan’s budget is not only bad policy but also bad politics. In fact, Democrats were openly rooting for Romney to pick Ryan as his VP over the past week, believing that it could well help their efforts to keep control of the Senate and win back the House in November.
In naming Ryan to the national ticket, Romney is sending a simple message to those Democrats: Bring it.
Rather than go safe — with a pick of Ohio Sen. Rob Portman or former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty — Romney and his team appear to have made the decision to place a big bet on the idea that people understand that now is a time in which tough choices need to be made and that the conservative vision for how to make those choices is one that can win majority support in the country.
The thinking in the Romney camp is clearly that the Ryan budget was likely to be at the center of the debate over the right way forward for the country whether or not the Wisconsin Republican was on the ticket so why not embrace that debate and try to own it with the man who is best able to articulate why the plan does what it does.
In a campaign that, of late, has been defined by its smallness, the naming of Ryan as VP is Romney suggesting that this is an election about big things — and that Republicans are the party better suited to win an ideas/issues-focused campaign like that.
(Romney hinted at that sentiment during an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd on Thursday; the former Massachusetts governor said that his VP pick would need to have a “vision for the country that adds something to the political discourse about the direction of the country”, adding: “I happen to believe this is a defining election for America, that we’re going to be voting for what kind of America we’re going to have.”)
Picking Ryan is also a tacit admission from Romneyworld that their long-held belief that the best path to victory was one in which the spotlight shone entirely on President Obama and his performance in his first term might not have been entirely correct.
In selecting Ryan, Romney is making clear that this isn’t simply about what President Obama has done for/to the country but also what a President Romney would do for/to it.
In that regard, Romney appears to have heeded the advice of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Ryan advocate, who has long argued that his party cannot win the presidency by simply being against Obama but rather also had to articulate its own positive vision of governance. The choice of Ryan makes clear that Romney agrees with that premise — at last in part.
But, for all the plaudits the pick will draw among the conservative crowd, real questions remain as to Ryan’s ability to prosper under the massive spotlight of a presidential election.
Ryan, as several Republican reminded us once it became clear late Friday night that he would be the pick, is someone who is largely untested on the national political stage.
Having won a difficult race for his competitive 1st district in 1998, Ryan has faced little challenge in his subsequent races and has steered a course far heavier on policy than politics during his Congressional tenure.
“It’s risky but not for the reasons that most folks think (the entitlement reform stuff),” wrote one senior Republican strategist in an email late Friday night regarding the Ryan pick. “The risky part is this: the guy is an untested candidate. He’s a policy wonk who doesn’t really have much experience as a campaigner. He could end up being fine or he could blow up.”
Even those Republicans more favorably inclined to Ryan acknowledged that the vice presidential nomination amounts to a major step up for him politically and wondered whether he had the stuff to stand up to what will be a withering attack from President Obama’s campaign on his budget proposal.
Viewed from 50,000 feet, Romney’s decision to tap Ryan is a break with the play-it-safe mentality that has defined the Republican nominee’s general election campaign to date. While Ryan isn’t as risky as the likes of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio or even New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, he is far less safe as a pick than Portman or Pawlenty.
Whether Romney was driven to take something of a risk due to his recent fade in state and national polling or whether this sort of bold move to push the GOP governing vision to the fore had been in the works all along matters less now than how Ryan performs as a candidate, however.
If Ryan can dodge the slings and arrows sent his way from Democrats while casting himself as the Republican ideas man for this and future generations, Romney will look like a smart gambler — betting on a proven commodity with a high upside and relatively little downside.
If, on the other hand, Ryan — and, by extension, Romney — struggles to get out from under attacks on his budget proposal and allows President Obama to turn this election into a pure choice rather than primarily a referendum on his own first four years in office, Republicans may look back at the Ryan pick with a grim shake of the head.
The next 87 days will decide which narrative wins out. But what we know today is that Romney took a risk — and bet big on Paul Ryan.