In pressuring Mitt Romney into choosing Paul Ryan, the far right has pulled off a coup. As in, coup d’état.
Think about this for a second. In the primaries Romney faced a series of more right-wing challengers: Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain. He won in part because even among Republican voters, those challengers were considered too ideologically extreme. But the primary battle still pulled Romney to the right, especially on issues like immigration and abortion that are of concern to key swing groups. By May large segments of Americans were calling him too conservative, and the Obama campaign had set about cementing that impression in the public mind.
In a healthy political party, a nominee in that situation would tack to the center. The GOP, after all, has serious brand problems among Hispanics, unmarried women, and the young, all groups with which it badly needs to make inroads. Romney has no special connection to any of them. On its face, the case for choosing a running mate with some crossover appeal was obvious.
In a healthy political party, partisans are self-aware enough to realize the gap between their own ideological proclivities and the nation’s, and they give their nominee the space to bridge it. The Wall Street Journal editorial page may relish an assault on middle-class entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security, but most Americans emphatically do not. When George W. Bush followed Paul Ryan’s advice in 2005 and tried to partially privatize Social Security, his presidency never recovered. Americans like the idea of a smaller, cheaper federal government in theory, but as in-depth polling by the Pew Research Center makes clear, when you ask them about specific budget items like health care, education, and infrastructure, they back more spending by vast margins. And when you ask them how to cut the deficit, even a majority of Republicans reject doing so with spending cuts alone.
In other words, Romney has just chosen a running mate with deeply unpopular views to shore up support among a conservative base that, were it less fanatical, would have been shored up already. In so doing, he has forfeited perhaps his best chance to introduce himself anew to the constituencies that distrust him and his party, and he has teed up exactly the budgetary debate that Obama wanted. In 1996 the Clinton campaign worked relentlessly to tie Bob Dole to Newt Gingrich because of Gingrich’s association with slashing middle-class entitlements. Now Romney has done the equivalent of putting Gingrich on the ticket.
But it gets worse. Increasingly Romney looks like a man who can be rolled. He’s changed his mind on abortion and gay rights. He’s largely unwilling to defend the health-care law that was the centerpiece of his governorship. He went to Jerusalem and, with right-wing sugar daddy Sheldon Adelson looking on, refused to defend his own stated position in support of a Palestinian state. And now he chooses a running mate who was widely considered too extreme to put on the ticket until right-wing pundits launched an unprecedented public pressure campaign to make Romney do just that.
It’s a recipe for disaster. Like George W. Bush and John McCain before him, Romney has chosen a running mate with much stronger ties to the conservative movement than he has. That gives Ryan enormous power. The first time Romney deviates from the Tea Party’s economic agenda, the same right-wing bigmouths who demanded that Romney choose Ryan will demand that Romney embrace Ryan’s views. Running mates are supposed to make presidential candidates look stronger. For Romney, the effect may be the reverse.
But there is a silver lining. Mitt Romney has given the Tea Party the election they want: a referendum on dramatic cuts in federal spending. When Obama wins—as seems even more likely today than it did Friday—the message will now be harder for Republicans to ignore. Ever since 2008, one of the biggest questions in American politics has been when the Republican Party would realize it was out of step with America and begin overhauling itself, as Democrats did in the 1980s. Paradoxically, Ryan’s selection has likely hastened that process. I hope the far right enjoys itself today, because I don’t think the fun is going to last.