After weeks of waiting, Mitt Romney finally made his pick for vice presidential nomine choosing Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who is (in) famous for the audacity of his budget proposals to revamp government spending.
Given the other candidates whose names were being bandied about, such as former Governor Tim Pawlenty and Ohio Senator Rob Portman, this is a surprise choice that defies conventional thought in three ways.
1. All Politics Are National: Generally speaking, vice presidential candidates are chosen due to their executive experience, policy expertise, or their ability to help the potential president carry a key state. Bush selected Dick Cheney due to his past experience as Secretary of Defense, and intimate knowledge of the executive branch. Then-Senator Al Gore was chosen due to his military record as well as his environmental and technology policy expertise. George H.W. Bush was selected due to his Texas connections, as much as for his experience as Chairman of the Republican National Committee -- and Director of the CIA. Any of them could step in for the president, should he die or become incapacitated.
Conversely, Paul Ryan has no executive experience and is unlikely to make Wisconsin competitive. He certainly wasn’t chosen for his economic policy acumen, unless the campaign wants to admit that the entire basis for Romney’s candidacy – that he understands the economy and can create jobs – is false. Ryan was selected solely due to the effect he would have on changing the election’s narrative, and to energize the base. The last time a VP was picked with a national approach in mind was Dan Quayle, whose youth, looks and conservatism were thought to appeal to a younger generation -- but whose selection instead proved to be a headache. While Ryan will never be as incompetent as Quayle, the selection may prove to be no more effective. It doesn’t help that it’s been over a century since the last House Republican was on a winning ticket.
2. Ditch the Center: Given how our political system features elections with primaries and first-past-the-post winners, politicians typically take more partisan positions during the primary and then moderate those views in the general election with an eye towards independent voters. This is Politics 101. Yet Romney has not made any drastic moves in that direction, and this choice reinforces that position so much that Democrats are cackling in glee over the opportunity to fight against this. While Romney was the one candidate during the GOP primaries that the Democrats didn’t want, Paul Ryan is the ideal GOP vice presidential nominee -- for Democrats.
Given how the last thing you generally want to do is to make your opponents jump of joy, a couple of explanations for Romney’s decision to stay to the right have been floating around: (1) his poor poll performance is due to losses from the right, and given how oversaturated TV channels are already he needs to mobilize activists on the ground to get enough voters to the polls; (2) he was pressured to do so by donors or activists and crumbled; (3) Romney is being tied to Ryan’s budget plan and only Ryan can effectively fight for it; or (4) he thinks he is going to lose and is trying to pin the blame on the far right in that eventuality. Options 1 and 2 seem to be the most credible given the polls and Romney’s history, and Option 4 the least likely until after the campaign loses, but any way you look at it Romney is hoping he can defy conventional campaign wisdom -- as much as Obama hopes his campaign can defy the economy.
3. Risk Taker Mitt Romney: A third reason why this choice is surprising is the character of the man who made it. Mitt Romney has curated a well-deserved reputation for risk aversion over the course of his private and public-sector career. He founded Bain Capital only after being guaranteed his old job, he took on the Olympics while remaining Bain Capital’s CEO in case things went bad, he has aggressively changed his positions to electoral demands and stuck to his talking points to prevent gaffes over the course of this campaign. Despite that Romney made the riskiest choice possible for VP, although he is already trying to hedge his bet by saying that he has his own budget plan separate from Paul Ryan’s. Unfortunately, Romney’s plan is so vague that it can’t be scored, which instantly pushes Ryan’s budget proposal to the campaign’s forefront. Given how much heat this plan will draw and how Ryan effectively ties Romney to the current, deeply unpopular Congress, Romney must be desperately hoping that the energy Ryan’s selection gives to the base will surmount the ticket’s unfavorable ratings -- which will surely climb unless he gives an amazing, game-changing speech at the Republican National Convention three weeks from now. If he does that, he may shed his cautious image altogether and actually pull this thing off.
Conventional wisdom exists in politics because it works most of the time. People who defy it do not generally succeed in their aim unless the political situation is just right. But given how he has been running for the presidency for the last six years, Mitt Romney is finished if he loses. He has made a risky bet that he can win an election against an incumbent by focusing less on the incumbent’s record than on the merit of the GOP’s and Democrat’s ideas of how the country should proceed, selecting the most erudite leader his side had. We will see if this pays off come November.