By Brian Thorn
The race for the presidency of the United States changed on August 11, 2012 in Norfolk, Virginia, when Mitt Romney looked up at Paul Ryan from a crowd of supporters. Beside the retired battleship USS Wisconsin, Ryan, recently announced as Romney’s vice presidential running mate, explained the urgency of the coming election: “Politicians from both parties have made empty promises, which will soon become broken promises-with painful consequences-If we fail to act now.” “What kind of country do we want to have,” he asked. “What kind of people do we want to be?”[i]
Ryan brings to the race strengths and weaknesses, and each campaign seems focused solely on the aspects of the candidate that can be used offensively. This may be practical for now, but as the campaign season wears on, both sides will have to acknowledge the complexity of Paul Ryan, the helpful and the unhelpful aspects, whether they want to or not. Ryan may highlight weaknesses in both parties’ campaigns, which they are not recognizing publicly, and for which they should be preparing a defense.
For example, one criticism of Mitt Romney as a candidate, whether true or fair or meaningful, is how dull and disconnected he seems. Ryan is certainly more charismatic and energetic, and is capable, as he demonstrated in Norfolk, of making a moral argument to a crowd, which Romney has had trouble delivering in the past. Romney is at the top of the ticket, but Republicans should be aware of just how brightly Paul Ryan can shine, lest he draw attention away from Romney on the campaign trail.
Ryan presents substantive challenges as well. Since the early August announcement, Romney has had the politically awkward task of embracing Ryan for his intellectual conservatism while distancing himself from his running mate’s most widely known and harshly criticized idea. In June, a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey found 58 percent of respondents oppose the Ryan plan’s changes to Medicare, with only 35 percent supporting the proposal. Among senior citizens, the number in opposition is almost 75 percent.[ii] A Pew Research Center poll found that 44 percent of respondents prefer Democrats handling Medicare over Republicans, who received 34 percent of the votes.[iii] Anticipating this challenge, the Romney campaign released talking points for Republicans regarding the Romney-Ryan ticket just hours after Ryan’s speech. The first question of the release: “Does this mean Mitt Romney is adopting the Paul Ryan plan?” The answer was diplomatic, but clear: “Gov. Romney applauds Paul Ryan for going in the right direction with his budget, and as president he will be putting together his own plan for cutting the deficit and putting the budget on a path to balance.”[iv] In other words: thanks, but no thanks. This political balance will get more difficult in the coming months, as it is in the Democrats’ interest to keep the issue in the minds of voters, and Romney has, as recently as March, gone on record as “very supportive of the Ryan budget plan,” adding: “I applaud it. It’s an excellent piece of work and very much needed.” [v]
Beyond the campaign for President, the Ryan budget could affect Republicans’ chances in congressional elections across the country. Montana, [vi] Florida,[vii] New York,[viii] and Nevada[ix]are just a few of the states where Democrats hope to make pieces of the Ryan budget the focus of their campaigns. Jesse Ferguson, Communications Director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, explained one consequence of Romney’s choice: “Mitt Romney gave us the national debate we’ve wanted. Now, the Medicare-ending Ryan budget is the ticket mate with every House Republican and Republican candidate running for Congress.”[x]
Ferguson’s memo shows that Democrats are confident, at least in public, that Ryan’s unpopular ideas will outweigh any positive aspects the congressman from Wisconsin brings to the ticket. Despite the posturing, there are dangers for Democrats, too, if they are unable to keep the Romney campaign on the defensive over Ryan’s budget. The first reason is Paul Ryan generally, the charming, Tea Party personality.
The Republican presidential primary, all but over at this point, was not only about selecting the party’s national nominee; it was about unifying the base around a single man or woman to stand against President Obama in November. Despite Romney’s presumed victory, many conservatives, especially Tea Partiers, feared that he was not a true representative of their interests, that he was not conservative enough, or that he could not defeat Obama. Romney was, after all, governor of a liberal state, where he signed an assault weapons ban[xi] and a health care reform law that became the model for the Obama administration’s landmark achievement, the Affordable Care Act.[xii] This left Romney with the challenge in recent months of catering to the far-right side of his party, while simultaneously appealing to moderates. Ryan ends that challenge. What far-right conservatives disliked about Mitt Romney, they love about Paul Ryan. In many ways, Ryan embodies the aspects of modern American conservatism that Romney cannot: he appeals to small-town, middle-class conservatives, and, as he announced recently, he is “happy to be clinging to my guns and my religion,”[xiii] two areas where Romney is politically weak. He’s the Not Romney resplendent.
Ryan may motivate any conservative who had not already planned to vote for Romney or against Obama to turn out in November. But any Tea Party favourite could complement Romney in the same way Ryan does, which brings us to the second reason Democrats should worry about Romney’s vice presidential running mate: Paul Ryan specifically, the experienced policy wonk. To Democrats, Ryan is a faux intellectual, an ideological extremist, who prioritizes the intangible-economic certainty, deficit reduction-over the lives of American citizens. To Republicans, however, Ryan has credibility because of his role as chairman of the House Budget Committee, and his history of trying to reform social welfare programs, which, to conservatives, represent the very essence of big government. For these reasons, and despite his entire career in Washington, Ryan seems like a fresh face in politics, one who makes decisions based on principle and the long-term interests of the country instead of politics. Two years after the Tea Party movement of 2010, this perception-true or not-has the potential to win over moderates disillusioned with President Obama. With or without the political center, the right is now united under the Romney-Ryan ticket, which means Republicans can focus their time and money fighting with Democrats over the small percentage of undecided voters.
Combined, those factors could mean increased turnout beyond what either party expects. And in a year when more than 35 states have introduced legislation restricting voting laws, turnout will be vital and unpredictable.[xiv] There is still plenty of time, of course, for unforeseeable circumstances and incalculable factors, but one thing seems certain: the campaign that best controls the Ryan budget narrative, and, by extension, convinces the electorate that its opponent is responsible for more broken promises will win in November.
(Brian Thorn is a political researcher based in Washington, DC)