"Barzini will move against you first. He'll set up a meeting with someone that you absolutely trust, guaranteeing your safety. And at that meeting, you'll be assassinated. -- The Godfather"
Paul Ryan is only 42-years old. He has spent his entire political career in the House and he’s never passed a significant piece of legislation. He has no substantial business, military, or executive experience. Even in comparison to past vice presidents like Al Gore, Dick Cheney and Joe Biden, he’s not exactly the most qualified VP for his ticket.
His résumé may be somewhat lacking, but his political power isn’t. Ryan’s “Road Map To Prosperity," which aims to dramatically cut entitlement spending and reduce the size of federal government, is very popular among conservative Republicans. These same voters, for fairly obvious reasons, have never quite warmed to Romney.
Ryan will increase their enthusiasm in the months before the election, but that’s not why he was chosen. Any voter excited about Ryan is already a staunch Republican; they don’t need much of a push to vote Barack Obama out of office. There were several more conventional VP choices — Tim Pawlenty, Bobby Jindal, Rob Portman — with conservative credentials as deep as Ryan’s.
But while most coverage of the “Veepstakes” has been focused on its electoral consequences, it won’t actually make much of a difference in November. No one understands this more than Romney himself, who made his fortune analyzing data and crunching numbers. He has read all of the political science research indicating that the economy, not the campaign, determines elections.
Choosing Ryan is about helping Romney govern, not getting him elected. Within the Republican Party, there’s no one with more credibility on fiscal issues than Ryan. If he had stayed in Congress, he would have been the final authority on any deal a hypothetical Romney administration would have made with the Democrats on the country’s long-term fiscal trajectory.
From his position as a Wisconsin congressman, he was practically invulnerable to being voted out of office. Long-time congressional incumbents have re-election rates that would rival the Politburo’s, and Ryan is one of the few who also has the ability to raise a significant amount of money nationally. With all that on his side, his family’s prominent standing within his district is almost unfair. As a result, he has been the rare national politician with the luxury of thinking about 2050.
That will change if he becomes vice president, tying his political fortunes inextricably to Romney’s.
Romney can’t think about 2050; he can’t even afford to look past 2014, much less 2016. By bringing Ryan into his White House, he is effectively co-opting his most powerful rival within the Republican Party, in much the same way Obama did with Hillary Clinton. As 50 Cent once said, it’s chess not checkers.
Ryan has the public image of a deficit hawk, but his voting record is more pragmatic than principled. During the Bush administration, he voted for the tax cuts, the war in Iraq, Medicare part B and TARP because he wanted to be a “team player.” If Romney is re-elected in 2016, Ryan would be first in line in 2020; for that type of power, he’ll be willing to be a team player again.
He can sell any potential deal with the Democrats to the Republican base far more effectively than Romney can. In effect, the credibility he has earned with them will make him the ideal spokesman for policies they would never have otherwise supported. This is better known in politics as “Nixon going to China.”
If Ryan wanted to force a Romney administration to vote for the “Road Map To Prosperity,” becoming VP is the least effective way of going about doing so. That’s the great irony behind adding him to the ticket: his ideological concerns aren’t being empowered; they’re being marginalized.
The more a politician becomes linked with an ideology, the easier it is for him to betray it. That’s why a former constitutional law scholar ended up becoming the first president with the same legal authority as Judge Dredd. It’s also why the signature achievement of Obama’s first term (the Affordable Care Act) is built around a policy (the individual mandate) he explicitly campaigned against in 2008.
If Romney wins in November, there will be a huge celebration among fiscal conservatives in Washington and Tea Party activists nationwide. Then, at a point early in his first term, he will send them an offer from someone they absolutely trust. They would be wise to refuse it.