In selecting Rep. Paul Ryan as the next would-be
President Vice President of the United States, Mitt Romney has rolled the dice on a risky, game-changing candidate (with all the baggage the term implies), a good-looking running mate with serious policy chops, who could nonetheless cost him the race. Meanwhile, however, the move appears to tee up a new era of GOP dominance that could find Mr. Ryan in the White House come 2016, while his erstwhile patron looks on from the private-sector sidelines.
Mr. Ryan’s negatives as a pick are plain to see: He comes from a Midwestern state that favored Mr. Obama by 15 percent in the last election and in which the president still holds a comfortable lead, so even the Badger State’s mere 10 electoral votes could still go blue.
He is the architect of a radical right-wing economic vision that will be an extremely hard sell to general election voters.
Despite his callow visage and Tobey Maguire-esque likability, the Congressional Budget Committee chairman’s series of roadmaps and alternative budgets are full of policy prescriptions that don’t tend to poll well with independent voters: huge reductions in tax rates for the wealthy (not a great talking point for Mr. Romney) as well as the elimination of levies on capital gains, interest and stock dividends. A sawzall spree of spending cuts. The creation of a voucher system for Medicare. And the partial privatization of Social Security.
He doesn’t just touch the so-called “third rail of American politics,” as Tip O’Neill famously called the most popular government program ever devised, he gets down in the track bed and pisses all over it. In Florida, the most prized swing state in the general election, Mr. Ryan’s scheme is positively toxic.
The veep candidate gets candor points for peeling off the rhetoric and baring his agenda for all to see. There’s a reason, however, that Mr. Romney has still never been “unzipped,” as Ann Romney proposed, but on the contrary has attired his own economic plans in an exceedingly modest, butt-covering ankle-length skirt: The details simply don’t play well, except with the Republican base and the self-interested billionaire backers of the tea party program. Even Mr. Ryan’s fellow Republicans are wary of his policy ideas.
The fact that Team Romney is still trying to lock down his base suggests that the campaign is in real trouble—and that the candidate may be too weak stand up to his financiers and what seems an increasingly desperate inner circle. They know as well as anyone that the well-paved road to the White House (Mr. Romney is not an off-road type of guy) calls for tacking to the center at this stage in the campaign, not pulling a sharp right and throwing off the GPS. Moreover, the prospect of Mr. Ryan’s Palin-esque upstaging of his new boss is a given, as their joint appearance on Saturday made all too clear.
A number of pundits have made the point that Mr. Ryan has never lost an election. But there’s a first time for everything, and the candidate could not have chosen a better race to lose. While wiping away his crocodile tears in November, the GOP’s new intellectual heavyweight (sorry, Newt) can comfort himself with the notion that he’ll almost certainly emerge as the nationally tested front-runner for the 2016 race.
While no sitting Congressman has ever captured the White House, Mr. Ryan would be able to count on a tailwind of outrage to fuel his run. A conservative base infuriated by the 2012 loss of a Northeast moderate like Mr. Romney—whom they never trusted in the first place—will be in no mood to swallow another establishment pick. And the Kochs, who will be giddy at the prospect of a true fellow traveler in the West Wing, practically a genius in comparison to former standard bearers like Herman Cain, Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, will pull out all the stops to put Mr. Ryan in office.
Let’s face it, he wouldn’t be the first competitor to take a dive in one contest in order to better position himself for the main event.
Indeed, when Mr. Romney introduced his running mate on Saturday as “the next president of the United States,” he might not have been mistaken after all—next, as in, After Obama finishes his second term.
Still, while Democrats may be cheered by this analysis, they shouldn’t be. Because while Mr. Ryan’s selection may well help them hold onto the White House, it could also lose them the Senate. Democrats, who hold a slim four-vote majority, are defending 23 seats; Republicans just 10. Numbers-cruncher Nate Silver has identified 16 of these races as competitive, of which seven are seen as tossups.
A string of recent tea party upsets in the the Senate primaries has Democrats licking their chops, but Mr. Ryan’s ability to fire up the base and juice turnout could well become a critical element that turns the tide in these races, and the down-ticket impact will be formidable, tilting still more statehouses and local seats to the GOP.
Meanwhile, four years may seem like a long time to wait for the presidency, but the masterminds of the conservative resurgence have spent decades gazing at the horizon. For them, it’s no stretch at all to imagine Mr. Ryan sweeping into power in 2016, a conquering hero to wild-eyed, ideologically driven GOP majorities in both houses, who will have spent years pushing for special prosecutors to ransack Obama’s sofa cushions while plotting to put the final match to the social safety net.
It’s worth nothing that Mr. Ryan is an admitted noodler. For non-fans of Dirty Jobs (which could do a fun episode on the vice presidency itself, come to think of it), noodling is a method for catching catfish with one’s bare hands. It is also known as catfisting, as Obama’s opposition research shop is undoubtedly well aware.
Catfish are timid creatures; they spend most of their time hanging out in holes, playing it safe. (You see where I’m going with this.) The noodler merely needs to find a catfish hole somewhere, stick his hand in and wait. The anxious fish, desperate to escape its self-made trap, lunges for the hand, at which point the nooder grabs the sucker by the gills and heaves it onto shore.
It looks like Mr. Ryan and his supporters just noodled the hell out of Mitt Romney. And the Romney camp bit off more than it can chew.