Given my interest in vice-presidential selection, it would be churlish of me not to weigh in on Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his running-mate. First of all, congratulations to my friend (and hopefully frequent Northumbrian commentator) Tony, whose first choice made it on the ticket. As a Biden partisan throughout the 2008 cycle, I know well how good it must feel to have someone you admire a great deal show up on the ticket.
I’ve been mulling this selection over, reading relatively little so far, so that my initial impressions aren’t influenced by the “Slate-sphere”, the conventional wisdom of snarky stay-at-home bloggers. In no particular order, here is my first draft of thoughts, unfiltered by hindsight or, for that matter, serious reflection.
- This is a bolder pick than I was expecting. Despite whatever I wrote earlier, my “spider sense” was inclined toward someone like Rob Portman, who would reflect the kind of campaign Mitt Romney has already run– conservative in both senses of the word, economically free market/socially patrician, but also risk-averse. If Rob Portman or Tim Pawlenty were safe mutual bonds as running mate prospects, Paul Ryan is a high-risk, high-reward junk bond, a possible grand slam but a potential detriment as well. A curiosity, given than Mitt has, so far, been the anti-McCain, with measured responses and maneuvering winning the day over the capricious hail-mary passes that marked the Arizona senator’s campaign.
- What this means is that you have a ticket that says, in James Carville’s immortal phrase, it’s the economy, stupid. You have a businessman and a pro-business policy wonk on the ticket. Whatever else they may have done, that will be the impression it leaves. In a bad economy that may get worse before it gets better, that is a powerful and logical strategy. This isn’t a game-changer along the lines of John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin. Palin’s selection radically altered the calculus of McCain’s broad strategy, giving him a feisty hockey mom, but also taking away his ability to criticize Obama’s comparative inexperience. As I said in my earlier veepstakes post, a Paul Ryan choice is doubling down, not balancing, the ticket. Romney’s emphasis is on the economy and with Paul Ryan on the ticket, it takes what Mitt Romney has been saying for the last 16 months, underlines it, bolds it, and sets it in 48-point Garamond font.
- What the Ryan pick doesn’t do is make up for Romney’s weaker points as a candidate. After a trip abroad that included a disastrous visit to England, Romney’s foreign policy credentials have been questioned, and Obama outpolls him when the question is, “who is the better commander in chief?” There’s no natural candidate for evangelicals to rally around or get excited about– although Ryan is much more socially conservative than any version of Mitt Romney, that’s not how Ryan marketed himself as a politician for the last decade.
- Most problematically of all for the Romney campaign, this selection doesn’t make up for what I believe to be Romney’s greatest barrier to election, his unlikability. His favorable/unfavorable ratings are low, and perilously low among independents. Much of this comes from a public perception that he lacks “the common touch”, that he lacks sympathy or empathy with, the average American. Ryan has similar problems, and it won’t be difficult at all for the opposition to paint him as an Ayn Rand-reading theoretician, gleefully cutting funds to the poor between visits to the gym. Remember how the 2008 campaign centered so neatly on narrative– Obama, with the father from Kenya and the mom from Kansas, Biden, the senatorial winter lion whose family was taken from him when he was only 30, McCain, the POW who endured 5 years of hell in Hanoi to become a respected reformer, and Palin, who delivered a child she knew would have a severe developmental disability. Romney-Ryan doesn’t have that kind of narrative power; just one guy who grew up super-rich and another guy who grew up so-so rich.
- This will hinder Romney in crucial Florida, with its high population of elderly voters. Medicare and Social Security are commonly called the “third rail” of American politics– if you touch it, you will get electrocuted. With an unpopular Republican governor, Rick Scott, already in hindering the state, a tough state to win just got progressively tougher. Ditto with economically lefty and socially righty states like Iowa. Conversely, the pick may help in economically righty and socially lefty states like New Hampshire. Wisconsin, the state that was closest in the 2004 election (yes, closer than Ohio) becomes once more a legitimate swing state.
- Which reminds me, running against the Ryan budget was a lucrative strategy for Kathy Hochul, who won a Republican-leaning district near my old grad school on a campaign that emphasized “Save Medicare” in a 2011 special election. Those incumbent and challenging Republicans further down on the ballot may have difficulty positioning themselves with respect to Ryan’s budget.
- It is pretty rare that a sitting congressman is chosen for a running mate. In the past century, only two– Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and William E. Miller in 1964 were selected. A bad omen, since both tickets went down to ignoble defeat, though not necessarily because of the running mates.
- Given that Mitt Romney is a Mormon, and Paul Ryan is a Catholic, this is the first major-party ticket in U.S. history without a conventional Protestant– astonishing, given the WASPish quality that has long characterized the GOP.
- It is also the first time that Catholics are competing with one another for a national office– as Joe Biden is also Catholic. This is not a superficial similarity. In a way, this is a battle between two very distinct versions of contemporary Catholicism. In Biden’s corner is the social justice wing, in Ryan’s the cultural warrior wing. Biden has drawn church criticism for his permissive position on abortion, Ryan for planning a budget that kneecaps the poor and elderly. It will be interesting to see how Catholics, both the very observant and those of the cafeteria variety (I prefer my own term, fish-fry Catholics, those who are culturally Catholic but do not tow the Vatican line), navigate the choices they have this election.