Like every other conservative I know—honestly, there are no exceptions—I feel energized and excited by the possibility that Paul Ryan will jump into the race for the GOP presidential nomination.
Even if he fails to emerge as his party’s final choice to take on Barack Obama, Ryan’s participation will instantly raise the level of debate and lift the spirits of wary Republicans who currently worry over the underwhelming response to a flawed, flaccid field. As one veteran operative gleefully told me: “If Ryan gets in, at least we won’t have to listen anymore to everybody bitching that ‘none of these people looks or sounds like a president.’”
And what about Mitt Romney, whose sculpted, Rushmore-ready looks and preternatural poise make him easily the most presidential pick of the present posse?
To his many detractors, he comes across more like an oddly lifelike replica of a commander in chief than representing the real deal, recalling a new audio-animatronic supplement to the ever-popular Hall of the Presidents attraction at Disney World.
According to sources close to Ryan, two potent factors have pushed the congressman toward overcoming his prior reluctance to launch a run for the White House: the painfully apparent weakness and vulnerability of Obama as a candidate for reelection and the painfully apparent weakness and vulnerability of all Republican contenders currently competing to replace the president.
For five reasons, the growing booster club for the 41-year-old Wisconsin whiz kid believes he stands a much better chance of beating Obama in November than do any of the three frontrunners of the moment: Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, and Michele Bachmann.
1. Ryan’s candidacy would keep the issues focus right where it needs to be to deliver a GOP victory: on jobs, the economy, and the budget. While Ryan’s consistent conservatism as a pro-lifer and a defender of Second Amendment rights make him acceptable to every wing of the party, he’s best-known for the economic arguments that can most plausibly fuel a conservative resurgence. (Obama just registered a spectacularly dismal Gallup approval rating of 26 percent when it comes to handling of the economy.) Ryan’s rivals could be distracted by other controversies—like Michele Bachmann’s recent pledge to reestablish “don’t ask, don’t tell” for the military (and do what with new gay recruits?), or Rick Perry’s Texas record of slashing spending on education, or Mitt Romney’s history of cutting jobs at Bain Capital. Sure, Democrats will try to smear Ryan’s controversial plan to restructure Medicare (and his diabolical determination to push Granny’s wheelchair off a cliff), but most Republicans are eager to take on that substantive debate at a time when all observers recognize the need for entitlement reform.
2. Ryan is perfectly suited, thematically and temperamentally, to define the GOP campaign in terms of growth and optimism rather than cutbacks, diminished horizons, and national decline. The congressman’s long-term budget plan is called “The Path to Prosperity,” not "The Path to Shared Sacrifice.” or “Strangling the Government in the Bathtub.” As a charter member of the “Reagan generation” in Republican politics (he was all of 18 when the Gipper delivered his unforgettable farewell address), Ryan understands that Reagan’s appeal centered on expansive visions—of American power, promise, freedom, and wealth—not on grumpy, green-eyeshade messages about lowering our expectations. The House Budget Committee chairman is natural heir to the Jack Kemp pro-growth strand of Republican thinking: He served his political apprenticeship with Kemp, both at Empower America and as speechwriter in the Buffalo congressman’s 1996 vice presidential campaign. Tim Pawlenty tried to emphasize these themes with his aspirational target of 5 percent annual GDP growth, but despite his impressive gubernatorial record, the Minnesotan proved too timid and tenuous to make the sale and withdrew from the race. Now Ryan can pick up that abandoned banner and rally the troops. Let Obama run as Mr. Eat-Your-Peas. Ryan will beat him as Mr. Morning-in-America.
3. With the Democrats planning to spend $1 billion to terrify the public about wacky Republicans, Ryan would prove more difficult to demonize than his rivals. David Axelrod and his Obama accomplices are already daydreaming about attack ads focusing on Mitt’s flip-flops and privileged patrician background, or Michele’s goofy gaffes about Elvis or John Quincy Adams, or Rick’s sympathy for secessionist sentiment and failed, grandiose dreams of a Trans-Texas Corridor. How would they slam Paul Ryan? The biggest personal controversy of his seven terms involves his penny-pinching habit of bedding down in his House offices, since he works there every night past midnight.
4. Ryan offers the ideal combination of conservative substance and moderate style. I’ve argued for years that the perfect formula for a unifying GOP nominee isn’t to split the difference between the so-called moderate and conservative wings of the party, or between the establishment and the Tea Party. Today’s Republicans remain a party of unequivocally conservative principles (as evidenced by near-unanimous GOP congressional votes against all elements of the Obama big-government agenda). Most Republicans, however (like most of their Democratic and independent neighbors), prefer a moderate, nonthreatening style to the explosive personality of some rhetorical bomb-thrower. Reagan exemplified the necessary blend to perfection: his clear-cut, unwavering conservative values won wide acceptance because they matched a sunny, agreeable, easygoing disposition. Mike Huckabee captured some of the same magic with his classic formulation: “I’m a conservative, but I’m not angry about it.” George W. Bush succeeded with a similar presentation, positioning himself in 2000 as a rock-ribbed religious right-winger who nonetheless respected the other side as a nice-guy “compassionate conservative” and a “uniter, not a divider.” The least-effective Republican nominees get the formulation exactly backwards: Bob Dole and John McCain, both admirable war heroes with impressive Senate records, worried righties (with their imperfect conservative credentials) and everyone else (with an edgy, occasionally angry and explosive, personal style). This year both Perry and Bachmann offer plenty of conservative substance, but without the reassuring moderate style; Romney provides the suave, comforting moderate style, but his Massachusetts record leaves Tea Party partisans uncertain of his conservative substance. Among this candidate crop, Ryan alone (with Pawlenty and Mitch Daniels out of the race) could provide the right formula in terms of both tough solid principle and agreeable personality.
5. As a Catholic Midwesterner, Ryan will provide the party a crucial leg up in decisive battleground states. One of many anomalies in this strange presidential race is that so far the only major Republican candidate who hasn’t been attacked over his personal faith is the Mormon guy, Mitt Romney—but if he won the nomination, the Obama attack machine would make up for lost time. As a report in the Politico noted, the Democrats plan to paint Romney as hopelessly “weird”—which many take as a code word for Mormon. Meanwhile, the outspoken evangelical orientation of both Perry and Bachmann may play well in the South and the Bible Belt, but these are states the GOP is supposed to win anyway, and there’s worrying evidence that swing voters elsewhere may feel resentful of efforts to blend faith and politics too aggressively. The crucial battlegrounds are almost all in the upper Midwest: Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, and, due east, Pennsylvania. In each of those states, Catholic citizens represent the largest religious denomination and the decisive swing constituency. The Irish-American Ryan, a fifth-generation resident of Janesville, Wis., could appeal far more comfortably to these voters than his evangelical or Mormon rivals. And his lanky, aw-shucks earnestness doesn’t hurt.
It’s still possible that Ryan, with three young kids, will decide to stay out of the race or that he’ll fall short of the nomination even if he moves forward. But a Ryan candidacy gives nervous Republicans the audacity to hope—with a real possibility of change.