As conservative leaders gathered at Sea Island in March for the American Enterprise Institute’s World Forum, former Vice President Dick Cheney was asked to look into the crystal ball and predict who Mitt Romney would choose as his running mate. With Paul Ryan and Rob Portman a few seats away, Cheney leaned into the microphone and declared: “The next vice president of the United States is sitting right here in this room, and his initials are ‘R.P.’ . . . but not necessarily in that order.” 

As Cheney made clear, Romney could not have gone wrong with either man with the initials R.P.  And Romney clearly saw what Dick Cheney saw in the young Congressman from Wisconsin — a candidate who could bring both energy and intellectual heft to the GOP ticket.

Cheney caused a stir a few weeks ago when he said that John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin was a “mistake” because she wasn’t ready for the presidency. Cheney’s real point — though he is far too modest to put it this way — was that Romney needed to pick someone like Dick Cheney.

George W. Bush didn’t put Cheney on the ticket in 2000 because of Wyoming’s 3 electoral votes. He picked Cheney because he was both a strong conservative, and someone who was ready to govern from Day One. That was precisely the kind of running-mate Romney needed: someone who, like Cheney, is seen by conservatives as one of their own and would energize the base; and someone who, like Cheney, would be taken seriously from the get-go as a potential president of the United States.

This is particularly important in 2012, because President Obama has settled on a strategy of tearing down Romney and painting him as an unacceptable alternative. We see that strategy in the Obama campaign’s charge that Romney potentially committed a “felony” in his SEC filings on his tenure at Bain Capital; in Harry Reid’s baseless claim that Romney paid no taxes for ten years; and in last week’s scurrilous ad charging that Romney killed a woman. Obama and his Democratic supporters know that millions of Americans are ready to make a change and are working tirelessly to demagogue and discredit the Romney ticket.

Romney did not want to help Team Obama feed that narrative. He wanted someone not seen as a “risky” choice and who would be immediately seen as a credible occupant of the Oval Office. But he also needed to generate enthusiasm for his candidacy that was lacking with the party’s base — a running-mate who would give conservatives a reason to vote for the Romney ticket and not just against Obama-Biden.

Of all the potential vice presidential candidates, Paul Ryan alone fits those twin priorities. He is both a “safe” and “bold” choice. Ryan is safe because he is experienced, substantive — wonky, even — and clearly ready for the presidency. Romney reportedly likes him, feels comfortable campaigning with him and considered him a safe selection in the sense that he would be taken seriously as a potential president.

But the Ryan pick is also bold because it has electrified the conservative grassroots. Conservatives love Ryan for his courage in presenting bold solutions to our nation’s fiscal problems. They bonded with him when he came under withering attack from the left for doing so — and were deeply impressed with his eloquence in defending his ideas on the national stage. They have seen Ryan go head-to-head with President Obama and win — and are looking forward to seeing him do it again this fall.

No doubt Obama will attack the Romney-Ryan ticket over the Ryan plan. But Romney already endorsed the Ryan plan, so those attacks were coming anyway. Now he has the Ryan plan’s most knowledgeable and skilled defender on the ticket to return fire.

In Paul Ryan, Romney chose someone who combines Cheney’s conservative credibility and his policy acumen. He could have made a choice that was a safe choice or a choice that was bold. Instead he did both — and that could make all the difference this November.