Those of us waiting to see how former Governor and presumptive G.O.P. presidential nominee Mitt Romney would answer the running mate question were finally given the answer: seven term Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee.
Without a doubt, it’s a bold move considering that historically presidential candidates generally steer clear of picking a sitting member of the House as the second name on the ticket, mainly because, in representing their state, depending on which they hail from, they only represent a small portion of it (Ryan himself is one of five Congressmen from Wisconsin). In fact the last time a Republican Candidate picked one was in 1964 by then Arizona senator Barry Goldwater (New York Congressmen William Miller) in his unsuccessful attempt to unseat LBJ. The last Presidential Campaign period to have a sitting member of Congress being the campaign of Walter Mondale in 1984 when he selected Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate.
Perhaps it’s a statement about the effect of New Media and the Internet in politics. The profile of any sitting congressman, or any representative can be pushed to the forefront, as Ryan had been with his budget plan. They are no longer relegated to a quick sound-byte on the news or a short blurb in the paper. They can be elevated to stardom by the blog-o-sphere and given hero status within their respective party, having a chance to gain a following from across the country. For whatever strengths Ryan might have otherwise had, he became a household name by that factor alone.
Still, the question remains, was Ryan the best possible choice for a Romney ticket?
Let’s start by asking the question of why Governor Romney chose Ryan.
The governor’s inherent strength lies in the state of the economy. If there is going to be a single issue that propels him to the win in November it’s going to be this. The problem he’s facing is that this is also where President Obama and the Democrats are hitting him the hardest, and some recent polls show that voters are not quite as optimistic as they once were about Romney’s ability to fix the economic problem.
Enter Paul Ryan, a number cruncher, much like Romney himself. He’s there because the Romney campaign believes that he is capable of infusing new life into their economic strategies and sell it to the American people. They want to bridge the gap. They’re hoping that by picking a candidate primarily known not just for criticizing, but putting forward his own solutions, he’s able to pull them over a hill they have been having a hard time getting over.
As noted earlier, the last Republican presidential campaign to put a sitting congressman on the ticket was the Goldwater campaign, but the last successful presidential ticket to do so was actually the Franklin Delano Roosevelt campaign in 1932, when he picked Speaker of the House John Nance Garner. Running on an economic platform during the toughest economic climate in American history, they successfully unseated incumbent Herbert Hoover who was seen as not doing enough to alleviate the stresses of the Great Depression. The main difference here is that Romney and Ryan do not have the core ideological differences that FDR had with his Southern conservative running mate.
What’s more is that Ryan answers the question of Romney’s conservative credentials.
Hammered away at during the primary season as being, as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich put it, “The Massachusetts Moderate,” the governor needed to make himself more palatable to the right. Ryan is, for lack of a better term, a policy wonk who’s defined his career by the issues. Where some have tried to, both successfully and unsuccessfully, label Romney as a flip flop artist, they have no such case when it comes to the congressman. In the end, as the old saying goes, “What you see is what you get” and what conservatives see is one of them at the table. It alleviates the fear of being left out in the cold if they go to the polls for Romney, making it easier for them to actually cast their vote for him.
Yet, the problem is that’s not the whole picture. There is, without a doubt, a Ryan problem as well.
For one there is no diversity on the ticket. Romney/Ryan is not a barnstorming, dynamic ticket. It’s essentially two men who are, in many respects, the same, playing off each others strength while doing very little to actually cover each others weaknesses. The only thing Ryan brings that’s essentially different is how he will sell the campaign messages, but outside of that he is a known commodity. Perhaps they’re trying to offset the core differences that occurred between Senator John McCain and Governor Sarah Palin in the last election, but there were other ways to do that with candidates that contrasted better with Romney.
In that sense, for as much as they are trying to gain back ground, that’s all they are doing, rather than giving voters even more reasons to vote for the ticket, as they might have done by picking a popular governor or senator who could speak to different issues than Romney. Even if Ryan does appeal to conservatives, it’s the fiscal conservatives who would vote for Romney for the same reason they would vote for a Romney/Ryan ticket.
With that in mind, the question then has to be what will he do to bring in the Independents and the class of voters still known as Reagan Democrats? Let’s face it, the budgetary plan Ryan proposed does very little to actually appeal to them, and, even if it does, it is certain that the Obama campaign will characterize it, as it already has in the past, as going too far and being too extreme. Since the Romney camp, to this day, has yet to find a way to counter Democratic attacks on its economic policies, there has to be a question of just how they are going to counter the attacks on Ryan’s.
What’s more, there is little chance that Ryan is going to deliver his state. In the past ten elections Wisconsin has gone Democrat for seven. It hasn’t swung for the Republican’s since Reagan’s successful campaigns of 1980 and 1984. Ryan does not represent enough of the state, one of five congressmen from it, to give them an accurate view of how Wisconsin is going to shape up, and, chances are if Wisconsin, for the first time in over a generation, does go Red, it’s going to go that way for a host of other factors, of which Ryan plays no part . It will be because of the same wave that swept in Governor Scott Walker and Senator Ron Johnson, as well as Democrat anger over being left out in the cold by President Obama during the recent recall effort in the State.
Where Ryan may have a national profile, that profile has never been tested in a statewide race or even one that has had national attention. Winning a congressional district 60-38 in a state that has more than one representative, as was the case in Ryan’s last and best race, doesn’t help in predicting how a candidate will do in carrying his own state in a presidential election.
However it may end up stacking up in the grand scheme of the presidential race, well that’s a different question for a different time, and one that perhaps won’t have to wait until the campaign post mortem to be seen. It will be made pretty clear pretty early on if this was the right choice. Really the question is going to be a matter of how Governor Romney cleans up the image mess he has so far in the campaign, because in the end, if he doesn’t do that, it doesn’t matter who he chooses as his running mate. If something isn’t right on the top of the ticket, then chances are people aren’t going to take the time to see who else is on it.
The truth is if he doesn’t fix “the vision thing,” then chances are “America’s Comeback Team” is going to end up being “America’s Also Ran Team”.