Why Romney Picked Paul Ryan

Mitt Romney is playing to his right by naming Paul Ryan as his running mate, instantly transforming the election into a debate over the Wisconsin congressman’s divisive budget-slashing plan.

Based on a report from NBC confirmed by other news organizations, Romney will introduce the Wisconsin congressman as his vice-presidential pick in Norfolk on Saturday morning.

In a single stroke, Romney energizes 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 hands President Obama and the Democrats a titanic target with a paper trail, given Ryan’s budget-slashing plan, approved by the House, that would turn Medicare into a voucher program.

The decision follows an intensive conservative media campaign on Ryan’s behalf, led by the Wall Street Journal editorial page and the Weekly Standard. 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. He has also drawn criticism for failing to specify which domestic programs would be whacked.

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.

While prominent in political circles, Ryan is hardly a household name, representing only the 1st District of Wisconsin and never having run statewide. So the race will be on to define the man who says his hero is Ayn Rand.

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.

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.

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As of Saturday, 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.