Obama Campaign’s Plan of Attack Against Paul Ryan

In picking Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney suddenly has a very detailed budget to defend. James Warren on what Team Obama will go after.

T.J. Kirkpatrick / Getty Images

Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan clearly enthused President Obama’s reelection advisers by essentially offering a de facto campaign theme: two heads for numbers without much heart for people.

One campaign consigliere concurred with my Twitter-sized initial take: that the specifics of Ryan’s budget plans would make the normal Jack and Jill nervous even as his “big ideas” excite more cerebral conservatives, ranging from The Wall Street Journal editorial page to my friend William Kristol, the pundit and Ryan fan.

Even stipulating that vice-presidential candidates don’t tend to turn elections, and that Ryan could still surprise, it’s clear that the initial sense among Democrats close to the campaign’s thinking is that the move will boomerang in their favor.

“I’m flabbergasted at the choice,” said Eric Adelstein, a Chicago-based Democratic political consultant. “Every Republican on the ballot has hedged on taking a position on the Ryan plan. Now they can’t.”

For many Democrats and journalists, he suggested, virtually every initial reference to Ryan may begin with some variation of, “Paul Ryan, author of the Ryan plan that dramatically cuts Medicare.”

“It seems everyone learned the lesson of the Sarah Palin debacle except Romney,” he said, arguing that it’s a poor choice.

Romney has sought to run a campaign straying from specifics while deriding both Obama’s management of the economy and lack of private-sector experience. He will now run with a congressman who could serve as a political piñata, given the litany of details he has promulgated on budgets and entitlements, such as privatization of Social Security, and who himself has no private-sector experience given a professional life as a wunderkind political creature.

For the Obama camp, said several Democrats knowledgeable of the campaign’s thinking, the assault will be multifaceted and primal. For example, said one, “They want to turn Medicare into a voucher program that costs seniors thousands so they can fund tax breaks for the wealthy.”

To that extent, the Ryan choice would seem, at first blush, to play into Obama hands, at least when it comes to framing the campaign as two divergent visions of deficit reduction and the role of government. It no longer can be one in which Romney disputes Obama’s oversight of a weak economy and exploits to the maximum the doubts about the president’s performance even among his supporters.

The Obama campaign's ads have for months underscored the notion that Romney and Obama present contrasting visions of government and the role of the private sector. “It’s a contrast they’ve been making for months, and now Romney has acquiesced to that argument and wants to have it,” said Thomas Bowen, a political adviser to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the former White House chief of staff and a co-chairman of the reelection campaign.

Ryan is very much on record in maintaining that his budget plan would bring all non-Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid spending to a mere 3.75 percent of gross domestic product by the year 2050. That would force giant cuts in critical areas including defense, research, and food stamps.

When it comes to just defense, Romney is already on record as pledging he’d not let Pentagon spending alone dip below 4 percent of GDP. As for Congress, it’s traditionally set the absolute floor at 3 percent of GDP for defense.

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Ryan may be a generally mild-mannered Midwesterner whose personality has played well in a fairly moderate district and is adept at parrying hostile queries about his proposals. But there are very harsh ramifications to those ideas, and the Obama camp will not err on the side of the subtle or nuanced in portraying them.

“It’s a mystifying choice when it comes to controlling the narrative of the argument,” said Bowen. “He’s going to fight on our terms and then double down.”

Are there clear plusses? For sure, concede even some Democrats. Several predicted it will heighten enthusiasm among a certain heavy-donor Republican elite who believe strongly in the need to cut Medicare and other entitlements.

“They think he’s [Ryan] the second coming of Christ and will support Romney more than they have previously,” said Bowen. And such increased support is not to be scoffed at, given the prospect of a Romney fundraising advantage, especially if one factors in the role of super PACs.

But beyond a certain big-money base, where does it help? Perhaps, suggested Obama supporters, it might put Wisconsin into play. But they do not seem to be initially fretting at many other ramifications.

And when I sent my very brief email to the Obama consigliere, there was one element missing: how the Ryan selection might play on a more personal level among voters.

It is clear from polling that the Republicans need more of a human element and the ability to connect with people on a more emotional level. Surveys show that even among a fair number of Americans who have qualms about Obama’s performance, there is a sense at the moment that he’s more “real” than Romney.

Does Ryan help the ticket resonate in a more positive, primal level, far from all the disputes about how to cut the deficit and what we should expect from Washington?

He may not. People may not vote for a vice president per se, but they could vote against a ticket for a bad choice in running mate.

If they see Romney, the chief executive officer, having essentially hired a chief financial officer, that may give them qualms. They’re voters, not shareholders, and they’re looking to buy into a stock, not just hike the size of existing holdings.