2016 Preview?

08.29.12

The Convention’s Key Moment: Paul Ryan Introduces Himself to America

There’s been a lot of GOP spin about how this convention is Mitt Romney’s chance to “introduce himself to the American people.” This is ridiculous: the man’s been running for president for five years. If polls show he has a likability deficiency at this point, it’s his fault, not the public’s lack of attention.

But for one person at the convention podium, this is a real opportunity to introduce himself to the American people—and that, of course, is the VP nominee Paul Ryan.

Beloved by conservatives, Ryan has invigorated the Romney campaign. As in 2008, the Republican running mate may again be more popular than the nominee among the party faithful. This time, though, it’s for reasons of substance as well as style. Ryan is the anti-Palin: a policy wonk rewarded for his political courage in putting an actual budget behind conservative rhetoric about reforming government. It is the first time a presidential candidate has essentially outsourced policy to his vice presidential pick.

But if Ryan is a rock star among wonky Republicans, he is still a House member, unknown to the nation at large. Tonight’s speech is the equivalent of his major-label debut after a series of critically acclaimed independent albums.

He is the first sitting congressman to be tapped as a vice-presidential nominee since Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, and the youngest nominee since Dan Quayle in 1988. He has never run for office outside his Wisconsin congressional district. Now he is running nationwide—but what resonates in the ideological echo chamber often does not translate to a broader audience.

That’s why his primetime talk tonight is arguably the highest-stake speech of the convention. Romney is building on an established foundation while Ryan is essentially crafting his profile in public with his speech tonight.

Sarah Palin’s convention speech was an instant classic, written by former Bush speechwriter Matt Scully. It established her, like her or not, as a scrappy political talent. Scully has also been working with Team Romney on the key speeches of this convention. Unlike Palin, Paul Ryan comes with a firm personal and political philosophy, and he is already an expert at articulating it. When it comes to conservative communicators, the key is to talk about economics in a way that resonates with people at home about their own lives—to talk about the dangers of deficit and debt in terms of personal values. And Ryan can do it.

That’s why Democrats who celebrated at the selection of Ryan may have underestimated their opponent. While his specific prescription for Medicare reform probably makes Florida more difficult to win, if anyone can convince Sunshine State seniors that entitlement reform is necessary for the security of their grandchildren, it’s Paul Ryan.

Ryan will have serious questions to answer on the campaign trail—particularly about his hypocritical abandonment of the Bowles-Simpson commission at the moment when his support could have been pivotal in putting forward a viable bipartisan deficit-reduction plan. (Of course, President Obama is open to the same criticism for not strongly backing the recommendations of his own commission). Likewise, a $4 trillion deficit-reduction proposal that sidesteps defense cuts is not exactly a profile in courage.

But this is Ryan’s chance to introduce himself and his vision to the American people, on his terms, without answering tough questions.

And then there is the elephant in the room, so to speak: the possibility of Ryan 2016. Talk of such a scenario is politically incorrect, of course, but for many of the major speeches—particularly Christie, Rubio, and Ryan—that is the subtext. But only Ryan is on the ticket in 2012, and that catapults him to either the vice presidency or first-among-equals status in the 2016 primary field.

Unlike Mitt, Ryan has a clear character narrative—overcoming the death of his father at age 16. Also unlike Mitt, Ryan has articulated a clear, consistent political vision for more than a decade—all leading up to this moment.

So if you’re watching one convention speech closely before the obligatory final event, make it Paul Ryan’s. Consider it an investment in the future, one way or another.