It's Ryan! How'd Mitt Do?

08.11.12

Michael Tomasky on Romney’s Stunning, Terrible Choice of Ryan for VP

So much for Romney making a pick that says something about his own views (whatever they are). Instead, he feared what Bill Kristol might say and buckled under. As always.

Paul Ryan? Really? It’s a stunning choice. A terrible one too. By making it, Mitt Romney tells America that he is not his own man and hasn’t even the remotest fleeting desire to be his own man. He is owned by the right wing. Did I write a couple of weeks ago that Romney was insecure? Well—Q.E.D.

Ryan will immediately become the flashpoint of this campaign. Yes, he’ll get the usual soft-focus biographical rollout. Expect Republicans to talk endlessly about his authenticity, his blue-collar roots, the fact that he once drove an Oscar Mayer weiner truck—and, certainly, his Catholicism. Also, his brains. He’s a smart guy, no doubt of that, although as I’ve written many times, it says something deeply pathetic about the GOP that Ryan has managed to become a star just because he’s bothered to learn policy.

So he’ll get some good press, and he’ll generate great enthusiasm among conservative intellectuals. But the introduction of him to the American people will inevitably involve some other things, too. It will involve explanations from the media that he is the GOP’s archconservative theoretician. It will involve explaining who Ayn Rand is. It will involve going into detail on his budget, and in particular his plans for Medicare. Learn that now, folks, if you don’t know it already. It will involve endless interpretations exactly like mine, about Romney sending a signal that he is running an ultraconservative campaign. The Ryan controversy will overtake the campaign. Romney will become in some senses the running mate—the ticket’s No. 2.

Think of it: The candidate will be running on his vice president’s ideas! It’s a staggering thought. Ryan might as well debate Obama this October, and Romney can square off against Biden.

Video screenshot

Paul Ryan defends his controversial Medicare plan.

And in this light, it’s what this choice says about Romney that is most interesting. Romney had to know all this. He had to accept, privately and internally, the arguments one hears that he’s a boring white guy who excites no one. And he had to accept the reality that he still, after flip-flopping on a half-dozen key issues and doing so much pandering, hasn’t koshered himself up with the right.

So, you’re Mitt Romney. You’re sitting there in your hotel suite alone at midnight. You’re thinking about this choice. After plowing through the angles about this state and that state and each person’s plusses and minuses, you think to yourself, “But I have to make the choice that I want to make, a choice that says something about me.” And yet, at the crucial moment, you recoil from it. You’re afraid to do that. Doing that might upset The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page or Bill Kristol, and goodness, that can’t be. It’s deeply craven.

Democrats are celebrating. Are they overdoing it? Ryan is smart. He’ll hold his own on the trail. He’ll talk about the fiscal cliff coming at the end of the year, and he’ll probably make as credible a case as any conservative can make that Obama won’t make the “tough choices” and Republicans will. And don’t forget that he has a grudge against Obama personally, ever since that George Washington University speech of Obama’s in April 2011 when he invited Ryan—and made the guy sit there and listen to the president of the United States trash him. That’s probably a motivator. And the Democrats might overplay their hand. That’s always a temptation when the target is as big and juicy as Ryan is.

So Democrats will have to be smart. They should show respect for Ryan for being a serious guy, but then just explain to people, urgently but not over-heatedly, what he’s proposed. It’s just very hard to imagine that middle-of-the-road voters want harsh future cuts to Medicare, massive tax cuts for the rich, and huge reductions to domestic programs that most swing voters really don’t hate. Does this choice work in Florida, with all those old people? If Romney just sacrificed Florida, he’s lost the election already.

And why? To placate a party that doesn’t even want him as its nominee anyway. It’s psycho-weird. But at least it will carry the benefit, if this ticket loses, of keeping conservatives from griping that they lost because their ticket was too moderate. Conservatism will share—will own—this loss.

Is all that "daring"? Well, Thelma and Louise were "daring" too, but they ended up at the bottom of a canyon. If the Democrats handle this situation properly, that's where this ticket will end up too, and then the rest of us—the people who don't want federal policy to be based on Atlas Shrugged—can finally and fully press the case to the right that America is not behind you, and please grow up.