Mitt Romney, With Nod to Right Wing, Rolls Out Paul Ryan As His Running Mate

The Wisconsin congressman vows to launch a crusade against debt and deficits as Mitt hails his running mate’s Catholic faith. Howard Kurtz on how Paul Ryan utterly changes the campaign.

Win McNamee / Getty Images

Mitt Romney unveiled Paul Ryan as his running mate on Saturday morning as a moral Catholic and bipartisan lawmaker who would help the country avoid a “fiscal catastrophe.”

After Romney’s rousing introduction in Norfolk, Ryan trotted down from a flag-bedecked aircraft carrier, tieless in a dark suit and white shirt, denounced President Obama’s “record of failure” and declared himself part of “America’s comeback team.” Romney got so carried away that he introduced Ryan as “the next president of the United States,” bounding back a moment later to say he had left out the “vice.”

If there was any doubt that the choice of the seven-term Wisconsin congressman would instantly transform the campaign, it vanished as the two men appeared before an enthusiastic crowd in Norfolk. The Romney team concluded that if Ryan’s divisive budget-slashing plan was going to be a major factor in the election—the Republican nominee had already endorsed it—the best course would be to have its author passionately defend it.

In sharp contrast to John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin four years ago, the instant media reaction to Ryan, 42, had nothing to do with his personality, family or experience. Instead, the punditry and analysis all focused on his policies—almost as if he were at the top of the ticket.

In announcing his vice-presidential pick, Romney portrayed Ryan as a politician who appeals to “our better angels” and whose opponents respect his “character.”

Romney, a Mormon, also made a bow to the anti-abortion wing of his party. He pointedly noting Ryan’s Catholic faith, saying that “Paul believes in the worth and dignity of American life.”

In his speech, Ryan hammered away at the “debt, doubts and despair” that he said had put the country on an “unsustainable path … We have the largest deficits and the biggest federal government since World War II.”

While skirting any mention of his budget cuts, and especially his controversial blueprint to turn Medicare into a voucher program, Ryan hinted at the notion that Republicans were not blameless for today’s economic mess. “Politicians of both parties made empty promises, which will soon become broken promises,” he said, even echoing Bill Clinton by promising to reward people who “work hard and play by the rules.”

In a single stroke, Romney energized the right wing of his party by picking the man who many Republicans revere as the intellectual leader of the party’s drive to shrink government. But he also handed Obama and the Democrats a titanic target with a paper trail, given Ryan’s budget-slashing plan and Medicare-privatization program approved by the House.

Indeed, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said in a statement on Saturday morning: “The architect of the radical Republican House budget, Ryan, like Romney, proposed an additional $250,000 tax cut for millionaires, and deep cuts in education from Head Start to college aid. His plan also would end Medicare as we know it.”

The liberal group American Bridge was ready with a website, Meet Paul Ryan, that declared: “There’s nothing defensible about a budget that hands out tax cuts to wealthy individuals and corporations while asking more of working-class families already struggling just to get by—and still doesn’t close the budget deficit until 2040.”

Romney aides made known that he reached his decision on Aug. 1, right after returning from his foreign trip. That means the recent conservative media campaign on Ryan’s behalf, led by The Wall Street Journal editorial page and the Weekly Standard, did not sway the candidate but might have been encouraged by Boston headquarters.

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The Journal called Ryan part of a "new generation of reformers" and urged his selection "against the advice of every Beltway bedwetter, he has put entitlement reform at the center of the public agenda—before it becomes a crisis that requires savage cuts."

Bill Kristol’s magazine acknowledged that such a pick “would place the Ryan budget at the center of the 2012 elections … Our answer: It' s too late to stop that from happening. And: So what?”

As chairman of the House Budget Committee, Ryan has won the respect of many Beltway types, including journalists, for what they see as a serious attempt to bring government spending under control. But by cutting income tax rates and eliminating taxes on capital gains, the latter move disproportionately benefiting the wealthy, Ryan does little to reduce the federal deficit.

And he opens the Romney ticket to charges that it would push future retirees into a privatized Medicare program where vouchers could easily fail to keep up with rising medical costs.

By deciding against Tim Pawlenty or Rob Portman, Romney ducks the charge of playing it safe by tapping a boring white guy. He avoids the accusation of inexperience he would have faced in giving the nod to Marco Rubio.

But an avalanche of media coverage could cast the contenders as the Ryan-Romney ticket with journalists, and Obama’s team, focusing on every constituency that would be hurt by Ryan’s budget and arguments that it tilts toward the rich.

First elected to the House in 1998, Ryan has essentially spent his career in politics, providing a sharp contrast with a nominee whose essential selling point is a lifetime of business experience. But he also firmly ties Romney’s outsider candidacy to the unpopular institution of Congress, which has sunk to record low approval ratings.

Ryan is one of a trio of House Republicans—along with Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Whip Kevin McCarthy—who were dubbed the Young Guns. He is well liked by nearly all members of the GOP caucus, seen as an affable, honest broker and smart numbers guy who still speaks plain English.

The Ryan pick will help Romney enormously in one key respect. The choice emphatically changes the subject at a time when the former Massachusetts governor has spent weeks on the defensive, on issues ranging from his failure to release more tax returns to his tenure at Bain Capital to the lack of a defined message. Romney has slipped behind Obama by as much as 9 points in national polls, as well as in a number of key swing states.

Now Romney’s campaign will no longer suffer from ideological fuzziness. The question is whether his new running mate, while exciting the base, will help Romney win over crucial independent voters—or scare them away.