In contrast to the widely panned efforts of former Mitt Romney adviser Stuart Stevens, two advisers close to former vice-presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have stepped forward in an impressive manner to explain Ryan's contribution to the 2012 campaign and make the case, indirectly, for his continued leadership in the party.
In the Wall Street Journal, Dan Senor and Peter Wehner are up front: "Since Nov. 6, Republicans have, for perfectly understandable reasons, expressed their deep disappointment with the election results." Senor and Wehner don't make excuses or whine about the results, thankfully. Instead, they make a potent argument that Ryan made an important contribution both substantively and politically. He defied expectations that "Mediscare" would be the killer issue for the Democrats:
[A]ccording to exit polling for the National Election Pool, the Romney-Ryan ticket carried voters age 65 and older by 17 points (58%-41%), nine points more than the McCain-Palin ticket four years ago. Among voters 45-64 years of age, Romney-Ryan defeated Obama-Biden by four points. In 2008, Obama-Biden carried that demographic by five points.
Most noteworthy, voters responded well to Mr. Ryan's Medicare argument when positioned against the Democratic attack. In a postelection national survey by Resurgent Republic, 52% of voters agreed with the description of Mr. Ryan's Medicare plan as one that would "preserve and protect the program," versus 35% who agreed with the description that his plan would "end Medicare as we know it.
The pair also make the case that the key to winning on this issues and others is to go on offense. ("Mr. Ryan in particular took it upon himself to speak proactively about Medicare. He explained why injecting competition into the system—just as we have done with Medicare Advantage and the prescription drug plan—would lower costs and improve efficiency.") They argue that this is a turning point in politics, unplugging that "third rail" and allowing for a more constructive debate on entitlement reform.
Wehner and Senor don't say so, but the implication is obvious, that the 2012 campaign was also a turning point for Ryan and the GOP. As the party searches for a new generation of leaders who can explain how conservative values translate into good policies for average Americans, Ryan will have a key role to play. His future is obviously bright, especially if he builds on his 2012 performance.
For Ryan, that means expanding his portfolio of issues. Less widely known than his budget prowess is his work in the House on immigration reform with colleagues like Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who's now in the Senate. Developing a coherent immigration approach is where Ryan can shine, bridging the gap between border control advocates and pragmatic conservatives. Likewise, in 2011 he began in broad philosophical terms to talk about upward mobility, but Ryan (like the late Rep. Jack Kemp) is ideally suited to bring conservative policy to communities where Republicans have been absent and to explain in concrete terms why conservative values and policies work for all Americans. As a conservative with sterling social conservative credentials, he can also set the tone and demonstrate intellectual consistency without ignoring political reality on issues like gay marriage.
Ryan has all the skills and experience needed to remain at the forefront of the party. Should he decide to mount a presidential run of his own (he's so young he could run any time in the next 20 years) he can cultivate a more emotional and personal style of campaigning that draws on his own life experience. His mentor Kemp had a unique blend of emotion (effervescent enthusiasm and genuine caring for people) and wonkiness. Ryan is very capable of doing the same.
For now, Ryan will return to the budget-and-tax battles around the "fiscal cliff." He's shown his star is rising and that he has the good sense to gather self-aware, smart advisers who help rather than hurt his appeal.