Aug 11 2012

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Paul Ryan – Risky, Bold & a Clear Choice

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Bringing the GOP "A" Game

Throughout his run for president, Mitt Romney has been a careful steward of his risk-reward paradigm.

For instance, having deciding against competing in Iowa early on, Romney jumped into the first caucus in the nation in the final weeks when an opening made victory look possible.

Since wrapping up the GOP primary, Romney has again carefully weighed the risk-reward paradigm, choosing a safe, “first do no harm” critique of President Obama’s economic policies and dismal results as his principle focus and line of attack.

In many ways, that strategy has worked.

After a spirited and competitive Republican primary campaign, Romney found himself with little money in the bank and with the President leading in the polls by 53-45%.  However, in less than three and a half months, Romney has beaten the President in fundraising, building a strong war chest, and despite a $130 million ad blitz against him by Team Obama, has pulled to within the margin of error in most national polls.

The question for Romney in August was whether playing it safe could win the election.

Other candidates challenging incumbents in past years have succeeded where the economy was in better shape than it is today Focusing exclusively on Obama’s stewardship bared Obam’s most glaring vulnerabilities, offering a clear referendum for the American people.  To that end, a competent, substantive, but otherwise vanilla pick for Vice President would safely bolster the narrative against President Obama, without the need for more detailed alternatives.

But looking at the electoral map, it was clear that while Romney has made the race competitive with his economic critique of the President, he has yet to move decisively in the lead with that argument alone. The alternative was to press on, hoping for continued bad economic news, or to go bold and seek both a referendum on the President’s record and a mandate to govern. Not simply a campaign of criticism, but also a campaign of ideas that would offer tangible, specific alternatives to the American people. Obviously the second option was the riskier, since specifics in modern politics only serve as fuel and fodder for distortion by political opponents. The payoff in success however, is governing clarity.

Today, Romney answered that challenge decisively, by picking Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) as his running mate. In choosing the intellectual godfather of the most comprehensive and detailed GOP deficit reduction/government reform plan, Romney has raised the stakes, seeking to broaden the debate into a contest of big ideas, and in the process, to seek a mandate to govern should he win. In an election that seems to have almost no room for error, Ryan is a high risk/high reward option that immediately shakes up the current assumptions of the fall campaign.

History of the GOP Selection Process:

In picking Ryan, Romney goes against the tide of history in the GOP selection process.

Since 1948, with the exception of those instances where the same Republican ticket was running for re-election (’56, ’72, ’84 and ’92), the GOP has picked a governor three times  (Dewey ’48, Nixon ’68 and McCain ’08) and a senator four times (Eisenhower ’52, Nixon ’60, Ford ’76, and Bush ’88).

However, equally prevalent for the GOP has been the vice presidential nominee with “fusion experience;” a background in either the executive or legislative branches, or other, senior government jobs. The Republicans have nominated three individuals with this type of resume (Reagan’s pick of Bush in ’80, Dole’s pick of Kemp in ’96 and Bush 43’s pick of Cheney in ’00).

Tim Pawlenty and Marco Rubio – apparent finalists for the VP nod – fell into the first group.  Senator Rob Portman, another finalist, fell into the second.

In the case of Ryan, there is only one other instance in post-WWII politics where the GOP VP nominee came from the House exclusively – Barry Goldwater’s pick of Bill Miller, a ticket that promptly went on to lose 44 states. Indeed, the last ticket to win with a VP from the House was Roosevelt-Garner in ’32, when FDR picked the Speaker of the House as his running mate. Garner famously said that, “the vice-presidency isn’t worth a pitcher of warm p-ss”.

The Risks of Ryan:

There can be no doubt that the White House and the Obama campaign are delighted by Romney’s selection, even wondering to what force of nature they owe such a “perfect gift.” Ryan is, after all, the author of one of the most controversial plans to revamp federal spending, crucially including specific details on reforms in Medicare. The Ryan plan is potent and potentially divisive. In a special election in New York state in 2011, voters in a conservative district elected Democrat Kathy Hochul, whose campaign focused exclusively on the potential impact of the Ryan budget plan.

For the past three months, Team Obama has focused on Romney as an out-of-touch plutocrat, seeking to give huge tax cuts to the wealthy.  Now with the addition of Ryan to the ticket, expect ads that build on that narrative with a new Republican co-pilot whose budget cuts for the vulnerable and those at risk will fund that tax windfall for the well off. The fresh opportunities for the President to terrorize voters in senior-rich Florida are particularly apparent.

In addition, the Ryan nomination leaves holes for Team Obama to exploit.

Ryan has no discernible foreign policy experience that would bring value-added to the ticket, particularly in light of Romney’s shaky first outing two weeks ago. And for a GOP nominee who consistently praises the private sector as the source of growth and innovation, Ryan is a government lifer, having spent the last 14 years in the House, and as a congressional staffer before that. There is also no doubt that Team Obama will recall Romney statements that his VP choice would be ready to take over on Day #1 and compare the 42 year old Ryan unfavorably. The largest organization that Ryan has run has been the House Budget Committee.

In sum, in Obamaland, short of a wildly unqualified pick, Ryan is as good as it gets for the Obama narrative, and the best chance the President has for doubling down on his argument that Romney is too “extreme” to be president.

The Benefits of Ryan:

But, as in all things, the first read is sometimes the worst read. Ryan’s benefits only become apparent when you dig a bit deeper.

Politically, Ryan solves an ongoing challenge to Romney by locking down the base. Movement conservatives, always wary of Romney, were looking to the VP pick for evidence that the nominee was committed to grass roots objectives of deficit reduction, a tax overhaul, spending and regulatory restraint and entitlement reform. In a race that may come down to base mobilization, Ryan provides the zest needed to get movement conservatives to the polls.

And that includes social conservatives. Ryan is both Catholic and pro-life.

Catholics represent one in four voters in the US. Historically, as go the Catholic vote so goes the election. Bush won Catholics narrowly in 2004 – Obama won them narrowly in 2008. In a year when the Obama administration has picked a fight with the Catholic church on First Amendment protections for religious freedom, all in the service of providing a taxpayer-subsidized mandate for free birth control regardless of the provider’s conscience objections, a Catholic running mate could make a difference.

In this regard, consider that Catholics make up 53% of Pennsylvania voters, 35% of New Hampshire’s, 29% of Wisconsin’s, 24% of Ohio’s and 23% of Michigan’s. Not coincidentally, Romney’s best chance of unseating Obama lies in turning at least some of these blue states red, even as the Ryan budget plan can cause headaches in Florida.

In addition, the nod to Ryan symbolically acknowledges, and aligns Romney with, the rise of a new generation of leadership in the Republican Party. As Michael Gerson writes, “Ryan is the undisputed leader of Reform Conservatism, which seesk to modernize the federal government…Ryan argues that public-sector inefficiency is a long term threat to the social safety net – that rising costs in particular will make unreformed entitlement programs unsustainable wile imposing a burden that will consume every other purpose of government.”

In choosing Ryan, Romney merges conservatism’s emerging intellectual framework with its existing governing construct in Congress.  If he wins, Romney has set the stage for rapid action with Ryan on the ticket, a critical weakness of President Obama when he took over in 2009.

Aside from these realities, Ryan’s greatest strength and, ironically for political purposes, his greatest risk as a running mate – is his intellectual depth, substance and detail. For Ryan, issues are not simply debating points used to win the next election, but problems to be solved.  He is serious, prepared articulate and dedicated.

Again, turning to Gerson, “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 approach to governing. [Indeed] Ryan’s vision of 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 so politically realistic.

In choosing Ryan, Romney has decided that the election cannot be won simply by detailing President Obama’s disastrous record, but only by offering a real alternative as well, beyond platitudes. And no one in the Republican Party today can make that argument better or more effectively for average voters than Paul Ryan. In a round-table on health care in 2010, Ryan left President Obama virtually speechless with his command of facts and details as Ryan systematically dismantled the financial assumptions of Obamacare.

In detailing a highly specific plan to reform the federal government to eventually bring the budget into balance, Ryan has created a credible choice for the American people. In choosing Ryan, Romney has also painted an easy target on the backs of his ticket that can be demagogued by Democrats, as Team Obama has almost certainly begun to do with glee.

And that raises the essentially the question for the American people.

The Ryan plan, and now by inference, the Romney-Ryan narrative, is that difficult choices, presented honestly and implemented now, can stave off harsher and more desperate measures (think Greece) down the road if the problems are left to fester.

In contrast, the President and the Democrats have nothing to offer but criticism. There is no Democratic alternative to Ryan’s blueprint. President Obama’s budget blueprint, such as it is, has the US national debt rising from $15 trillion today to $25 trillion by 2020. That is not simply unsustainable, it is economy-collapsing.

Action or denial. Action or demagoguery. Courage or fear.

Those are America’s adult choices this November.

 Until now, the race has been tedious and insipid, and occasionally juvenile. But now, with the selection of Ryan, the “Big Issues” campaign that so many have longed for is finally here.  It has become a cliche in American politics that each election is the most consequential. But in fact this election is as consequential to the future of the nation as were the elections of 1860 and 1932. In choosing Ryan as a running mate, with all that it represents, Romney is bringing a clear, intellectually grounded choice to contest Obamaism at its core in this most important contest.

A final word here about Mitt Romney.

VP selections are the first “presidential” decisions.  It is the first time voters get a look at how the candidate weighs consequential choices and evaluates risk. It illustrates, in ways good and bad, the character of the candidate, what kind of leader they will make.

In his VP search, Romney was at a fork in the road.

He could have made a safe pick in Tim Pawlenty or Rob Portman, two distinguished and able politicians, both capable of stepping in if something should happen to the President. There would be little downside in a campaign that focused on President Obama’s failures and shortcomings. Both incumbents Carter and Bush 41 lost with unemployment rates lower than today’s 8.3%. Such a strategy would have preserved maximum flexibility for Romney should he win, but with a narrower mandate for what might be achievable.

Instead, Romney gambled. He chose to align his  presidential aspirations with a candidate of specific ideas and a very specific plan. In doing so, he knowingly opens his ticket up to merciless attack by the left, but he also offers a very tangible guide to the American people about how to solve the intractable problems we face. If he wins, Romney gets the mandate to follow through.

That decision took guts. More than any other characteristic, courage is the most precious in a President.  Its absence creates weakness and uncertainty. It’s presence marks men for greatness, such as Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy and Reagan.

In picking Paul Ryan, Romney has demonstrated that he too has courage. A good omen as we begin the 90 day sprint to November.

To the victor will go the White House.

 Game on.

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