Risky Business

Mitt Romney’s Bold Gamble on Paul Ryan

In picking Paul Ryan, Mitt did something he hasn’t done in years—make a big, unexpected decision. Matt Latimer on the risks and rewards to the GOP—and the echoes of Bush 41.

08.11.12 2:46 PM ET

Let’s hope they asked him to spell “potato.”  For those either too young to remember or too normal to be obsessed with politics, today is not the first time a wealthy guy with a big family and trouble with “the vision thing” chose as his running mate someone young, telegenic, and conservative in order to please those wacky right wingers he never deigned to understand.  Back in 1988, George H. W. Bush’s selection of Indiana Senator Dan Quayle, by many accounts a good and capable man, was nonetheless a disaster.  Fairly or not, Quayle morphed into a parody that haunted Bush (and Quayle) for four years.  Where, for example, does one begin? The Poppy Bush – Mitt Romney comparisons likely to flower in abundance over the next few weeks certainly are apt.  The Quayle-Ryan ones, however, are probably not.  Paul Ryan seems ready for prime time.

Us humans could never comprehend what complicated set of computer calculations at Romney, Inc. led to the Wisconsin congressman as a vice presidential nominee.  Maybe the Romney technicians wanted to make a play for the youth vote.  Maybe their polling showed their trouble with conservatives is even worse than is generally known.  Maybe it was opposite day and the computers picked someone who except for his race and hair color is completely different from the boss: young and fresh-faced, ideological, daring, serious, even transformational.  Whatever the reason for the choice, Governor Romney deserves credit for doing something he has not done in years: making a bold, unexpected decision.  Paul Ryan will spice up a flailing campaign.  In condiment terms, he is hot sauce compared to the warm mayonnaise of McDonnell, Portman, and those other bland white guys whose names, backgrounds, and public statements I can’t possibly force myself to remember.  And, importantly, Mr. Ryan should rally a significant share of people on the right who are (rightly) skeptical of the Massachusetts “Etch-a-Sketch” campaign.

Of course, the Ryan selection also is a gamble – which makes it all the more astounding that the ever-cautious Romney was willing to make it.  A series of successful appearances on those Sunday morning political talk-a-thons is not the same as standing in the intense glare of a thousand cameras while they analyze your every thought and movement. Little is known to the public about Mr. Ryan’s family and background. Did he ever fudge his resume?  Did he cheat on a calculus test?  Did he and his wife ever have an argument in a public place?  Did he ever play golf at a restricted club?  Will ABC’s Brian Ross try to link him to a national tragedy? We’ll soon find out.

Then of course there are the other problems.  By that, I mean those actually relevant to his current job and the one he seeks.  Mr. Ryan has ideas. Tough choices to reduce the federal debt.  A reimagining of the Medicare system.  You know, issues that really matter to the country but which few Republicans in public office dare to attach their own name to without a national crisis, the blessing of the mainstream media, and the protection of a large number of Democrats.  The one thing the Washington culture dislikes more than gridlock is a conservative trying to break it.  Get used to hearing the word “extremist.” A lot. It’s already started, of course. Soon there will be commercials with grandmas saying that “the Romney-Ryan Medicare plan” – and it is forever Mitt Romney’s now – will take away their health care and leave them walking the streets with coffee cups in hand.  Romney and Ryan both know this is coming. How they handle it will say a lot about their prospects in November and, if they’re lucky, in the White House.

It also is not clear how many conservatives and tea partiers outside of Washington really know who Paul Ryan is – or whether his introduction to the larger country will be sidetracked by irrelevancies and distractions, as assuredly will be the Obama campaign’s intent. Regardless, Mr. Romney seems to have cast his lot with the conservative movement – at least for the purposes of getting elected.  At the announcement in Norfolk, Mr. Romney not only looked proud but relieved.  That’s why this choice matters.  A candidate struggling for a message has finally found one.  Even if it really isn’t his.