Paul Ryan isn't a two-fer in presidential politics. He's a ten-fer.
Not because it's convenient but because it's true, Ryan brings five potential advantages and five potential hazards to Mitt Romney. Unlike anyone else Romney could have picked, Ryan is multifaceted politically and genuinely memorable on the gritty substance of fiscal policy. Next to Romney, Ryan stands equally balanced between promise and peril.
The decisive factor in which way the Ryan factor tilts - toward advantageous momentum or disorganized defeatism - depends entirely on Romney. The nominee will determine what he makes of or what is made of Ryan.
Yes, Ryan is a big pick with risks and opportunities galore. But Ryan can't turn the epic battle with President Obama into victory or defeat. Only Romney can. Unlike any other potential running mate, Ryan gives Romney a wider array of ingredients for victory and defeat - and a more tuned-in public hungry to see what he makes of this audacious move.
1. Governing. I wrote in early April that Romney would pick Ohio Sen. Rob Portman in large part because I concluded he provided the strongest governing skills. What is known about Romney -- by those closest to him and, if he's successful, the country -- is that he's deadly serious about governing and getting things done if he wins. I thought Portman could do more than any available option. Many top House and Senate Republicans subsequently disagreed. They respect and admire Portman but argue Ryan alone has the respect of every Hill Republican. Remember, the Ryan budget that is now party orthodoxy started as a Ryan notion. House GOP leaders didn't initially back it and left it out of their 2010 manifesto. Senate Republicans barely took notice of Ryan's after-school project. When Republicans won the House, GOP leaders told Ryan they would back his budget -- if he found the votes. Ryan did. With lengthy and sometimes exhaustive sessions going over budget minutiae and his power-point presentation, Ryan gathered the votes one by one. This process conferred upon Ryan unmatched budget credibility - on the policy and the politics. When Gingrich criticized the Ryan budget as "radical and right-wing social engineering," the conservative intelligentsia and grassroots conservatives rebelled. "One of the big challenges of a Romney presidency will be corralling and working closely with congressional Republicans who, left to their own devices, could be quite restive," said top GOP lobbyist Jack Howard of the Wexler Group. "Paul Ryan commands a deep reservoir of well-earned respect." Eric Ueland, chief of staff to former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, agrees. "He is tight with many House members, and will be able to fit in well with the Senate as its presiding officer and become the key hinge between the Hill and the Romney administration." Ryan, if he had to, could sell Romney budget and tax policy to Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Susan Collins of Maine. Both would take him seriously and probably follow - even if they would rather not.
2. Energy. Everyone who makes it to Congress has it. But Ryan has more than most. He's kinetic. All the time. He leads fellow Republicans in P90X workouts in the House gym and moves through the Capitol with the idealist's tempo - not the cynic's grudging trudge. Ryan devours data and stays awake at night analyzing sovereign debt loads and bond spreads. Wherever he goes, Ryan is likely to infect the converted and the curious with a kind of authentic vibe not commonly associated with seven-term Hill lifers.
3. Authenticity. Ryan won over House GOP leaders and rank-and-file House Republicans through the art of relentless persuasion in the new context of a tea party-inspired GOP majority eager (unlike Bush-era majorities) to cut spending. Ryan is not the only reason but he's a big reason why it is easier in the GOP House to undo fee-for-service Medicare than it is to pass a long-term surface transportation bill. Ryan is authentic about his belief in entitlement reform and, more importantly, the politics of risk in a new era of $15 trillion debt. Many Democrats consider it rapacious policy and brain dead politics, but Ryan remains undeterred and that sense of purpose was enough to create common cause with Sen. Ron Wyden on a less aggressive form of Medicare reform. "The dedication and thought given to his budget proposals, the reasonableness of his approach, and his earnest efforts to make improvements with thoughtful Democratic input will shine most brightly with the best surrogate you can get on all this: Ryan," said Ueland. "Ryan will carry the message of real hope and serious change from the same-old, same-old of the past four years. He's the strongest messenger yet on these issues, when strength is what the country needs." If Romney can replicate and channel Ryan's authenticity, he will fill in a large and nagging void.
4. Alliteration. Romney and Ryan rolls off the tongue. You may see R squared references as a not-so-subtle joke about the numbers-heavy wonkery of nominee and running mate. More to the point, grassroots Republicans will donate in droves (yes, small amounts, but symbolically important) for a Romney-Ryan ticket and snap up bumper stickers. Romney's camp raised at least $2 million on announcement day. Ryan adds alliteration and a sense, among GOP devotees, of cool. Whereas Romney was a bit distant and aloof, Ryan could help him break through.
5. Substance. Yes, Romney has a 59-point economic program. But no one in the GOP knows, genuinely, what's in it or if they would follow it. They know much more about Ryan's budget, why they did vote for it (three times in most cases) and why it's the biggest and most internally galvanizing policy idea in GOP circles since the Kemp-Roth tax cuts of 1981 (proposed in 1977). Ryan wrote speeches for Kemp. Ryan has the substance of budget baselines down like most people know sports statistics, reality show plot turns, or the hottest pop music downloads. He can inject into Romney's generally spongy policy shop some real lumber and intensify the focus on short-term and long-term policy choices and the politics behind them. Tea partiers prefer Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul's ideas, but they are political non-starters now and Paul has shown no ability yet to convert the skeptical. On substance, Ryan has. He's written budgets and passed them. No Senate Democrat has for three years running. And the Budget Control Act, which Ryan backed, is not a budget. It's a set of short-term aggregate spending numbers - the budgetary difference between chicken broth and Chicken Kiev.
But Ryan comes with real and pronounced risks. Here are the hazards:
1. Fear. These are unsettled times and middle class anxiety about job creation and wage growth is palpable. Frustration is high and a sense reflexive dissatisfaction with talk of a "new normal" of diminished economic horizons aggravates voters. But that doesn't mean they want more tax cuts for the rich (meaning extending the Bush tax cuts for those families with taxable income above $250,000) or that they are ready to turn Medicare into cash subsidy program with free market insurers as the gate-keepers of care and coverage. Polls show deep skepticism about both. And for all of Ryan's effectiveness in winning GOP support for his budget, there is a pass-it-and-forget-it quality to the debates. Republicans don't hide the Ryan budget (it's impossible) but they don't hang a lantern on it, either. Democrats do whenever and wherever they can -- portraying Ryan's policies as a scheme to lard more butter and jam on the bread of the wealthy while dispensing parched crumbs to the poor and middle class by carving up domestic discretionary and entitlement spending. Democrats will sow that fear and try to drive voters away from Ryan's dynamism by portraying his ideas as an accelerated Bush-era road to economic ruin. "This plays right into the narrative of a heartless Romney that puts efficiency and the bottom line above everything else, even if it comes at the expense of people," said one former top strategist for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "Medicare and Social Security are the policy avenues in which the Democrats can attack Romney - with credibility - on that front." Romney today took pains to say his budget will be his and Ryan has merely pointed the way forward. But Romney will own Ryan's budget. If he doesn't, he risks alienating the very conservatives so revved up by Ryan. And if Romney equivocates on the Ryan budget he will signal to swing voters maybe something is wrong with Ryan's ideas - thereby giving credibility to Democratic criticism. If Romney and Ryan can't withstand these attacks, Ryan will drag the ticket down by allowing the presidential debate to shift from a referendum on Obama's stewardship of the economy to a broader one about the economy and entitlements.
2. Inexperience. Ryan is a committee chairman and a 14-year veteran of Congress. But he doesn't know the presidential zoo. As Republicans readily point out, Ryan is far more experienced than Obama was when he ran for president. But Obama's at the top of the pyramid and knows the rigors of a full-blown national campaign. Among the top four on both tickets, Ryan is the only pure newbie. And because, by all accounts, Ryan adds energy, substance, and political chops to the ticket any misstep will be amplified.
3. Talkative. Ryan loves to talk and pauses cheerfully in the Speaker's lobby for any reporter. He will even unplug his ear buds to take a question, interrupting, more often than not, Led Zeppelin riffs. Ryan takes all questions and likes the give-and-take of ideas, politics, and congressional lethargy (which he hates). All this is an asset for a politician on the move and who wants to burnish his image as an inexhaustible idea furnace. But it's dangerous for a running mate in a climate where every utterance is microscopically inspected and subject to nasty re-translation by rival campaign operatives. Ryan is at ease defending each line of his budget. Romney might not want him to be so accessible or chatty. Democrats will want to make Ryan a central issue and he will feel duty-bound to defend and protect his work-product. Learning to defer and deflect won't come quickly or easily to Ryan. Risks abound.
4. Overshadow. Ryan already has. Romney had to awkwardly clean up his Norfolk botch of introducing Ryan as the "next president." Conservative reaction and support hailed Ryan as a substantive breath of fresh air, a true and bold leader. And they meant it. Ask yourself if this was true about Romney. Ryan is the dynamo, Romney the...nominee. When adjectives pile up more frequently and more favorably for the running mate than the nominee, voters grow confused and then, inevitably, disinterested. Voters don't elect vice presidents. Ask Lloyd Bentsen. If Romney needs Ryan to excite the base and inject adrenaline, he's visibly playing second fiddle. Voters often sense this and move on...away. On this point, a senior congressional Republican aide offered this observation: "I'm fascinated by Romney's CEO/corporate approach to the selection. He identified a weakness in his business -- insufficient "vision" -- and rather than trying to make that product himself, he identified and acquired a smaller firm that was already successfully producing it. Whether Romney Inc. can successfully assimilate Ryan's little start-up company in the next 90 days and get folks to buy the new product is obviously the big question."
5. Washington. Ryan is pure Beltway. Fourteen years in Congress and several more in think tanks and as a speech-writer and ladder-climber. Ryan and his budget and his successful advocacy for it are pure stories of triumphant Washington ideology. This gives Romney no room to hold his nose and point a disapproving finger at Washington. He may have gained with Ryan in other ways, but he has just bulldozed one campaign pillar.
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