In the past, I’ve drawn a distinction between Rejectionist Conservatism and Reform Conservatism. The Rejectionists — including tea party activists and libertarians — generally want to undo the modern state on the shortest possible timeline. The Club for Growth and a number of tea party-allied politicians opposed the Ryan budget because it does not balance within 10 years or abolish whole departments of government. 

Ryan is the undisputed leader of Reform Conservatism, which seeks to modernize the federal government instead of abolishing it. Ryan argues that public-sector inefficiency is a long-term threat to the social safety net — that rising health costs in particular will make unreformed entitlement programs unsustainable while imposing a burden that will consume every other purpose of government. Ryan’s vision of entitlement reform is more politically realistic than the symbolic purity of the tea party — but also more threatening to liberalism, precisely because it is politically realistic.

Ryan’s critics will attempt to make him out as the second coming of Michele Bachmann. In fact, they fear him more, because he is infinitely more serious. He represents not the inchoate frustration and nostalgia of the tea party but a developed, thoroughly modern conservative approach to governing.

Who would have thought that Mitt Romney would fully embrace this bold ideological alternative? Now that he has, the stakes of the election rise significantly. A Romney win would not only be the victory of a pragmatic problem-solver. It would be the triumph of a comprehensive conservative substitute for modern liberalism, at least when it comes to entitlements. That increases Romney’s political degree of difficulty, increases the intensity of his liberal opposition — and gives his candidacy an unexpected historical significance.