House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan touts his 2012 federal budget. Today, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney announced Ryan as his running mate. As the chairman of the House Budget Committee, Ryan gives Romney a link to Capitol Hill leadership and underscores Romney's effort to make the election a referendum on the nation's economic course.
After a campaign spent pandering slavishly to the right, Mitt Romney has finally inspired a giddy burst of bipartisan consensus: On the right and left, everyone’s jumping for joy about his new running mate. For conservatives who’ve always regarded the former “Massachusetts moderate” with cold suspicion, it wasn’t enough for Romney to endorse and effusively praise Paul Ryan’s infamous budget—a plan that would give the richest Americans an average tax cut of at least $150,000 a year and cap Medicare benefits, meaning that seniors would fall further and further behind over time. They didn’t believe Romney. But now, with Ryan on the ticket, it’s clear that Mitt fully intends to bomb the social safety net back to the 19th century, and to turn America into a land of super-haves and 99 percent have-nots. The Prospect’s Jamelle Bouie has long argued that Romney truly meant it when he embraced Ryan’s blend of Austrian economics. And if anyone still had a doubt who will be setting economic policy in a Romney administration, he did introduce his pick this morning on the USS Wisconsin as “the next president of the United States, Paul Ryan.” It was a slip of the tongue, but also a grim reminder: What Dick Cheney was to foreign policy, Ryan would be to domestic policy—terrifyingly running the show, albeit with a dash of down-home, blue-eyed charm.
But if the prospect of Ryan as economic commander-in-chief is enough to send any liberal (or moderate) into a depressive funk, the idea of running against him gets the blood up. It’s guaranteed to have that effect on President Obama, who in many ways has already been running against Ryan. The single most rip-roaring speech of the 2012 Obama campaign was back in April, when the president picked apart the Ryan budget in devastating detail and memorably described it as “thinly veiled social Darwinism.” Ryan was in the audience that day, sitting right on the front row, and was reported to have been visibly fuming as the president eviscerated his plan, saying that it “paints a picture of our future that is deeply pessimistic.”
The president has been trying all along to persuade his somewhat dispirited supporters that this is a high-stakes election—a referendum on the country’s future economic direction. Now, thanks to Romney’s risky choice of a light-on-experience economic extremist as his Cheney, Obama won’t have to do any more convincing. Ryan himself made that clear this morning, when he posed the questions that will now define this campaign: “What kind of country do we want to have? What kind of people do we want to be?” As Jamelle wrote, “Conservatives love Ryan, but seniors, young people, women, nonwhites, veterans, the disabled, and the poor might feel differently about a man who wants to make the federal government an ATM for the wealthy.”
But Democrats would be sorely mistaken to imagine that the Ryan pick makes Obama’s re-election a cinch. It’s true that the particulars of Ryan’s budget plan are wildly unpopular, as a poll last year by ABC and the Washington Post made vividly clear. It's also true that there’s a historical analogy that gladdens the Democratic heart. The last comparable vice-presidential pick came in 1996, when Bob Dole—seen by conservatives, like Romney, as suspiciously moderate and squishy—chose the man who was then the state-of-the-art GOP leader of supply-side economics, Jack Kemp. Kemp, like Ryan, was charismatic and viewed as a visionary. (He is also one of Ryan's mentors.) To say the least, it didn’t work wonders for the Bobster. But that was a very different election: Dole was losing by double digits when he made his VP choice, and Bill Clinton, unlike Obama, was running with the economic winds strongly at his back.
There's a cautionary tale for overconfident Democrats to consider as well. When Ronald Reagan captured the GOP nomination in 1980, many thought that Jimmy Carter’s re-election had become a lock. The conventional wisdom was virtually unanimous: Reagan was far too radical, his trickle-down economics far too unpopular, to make him a viable candidate. He was Barry Goldwater all over again. Well, we know how that worked out. True, Carter had economic and foreign catastrophes weighing him down—and as a campaigner and debater, he was sure as heck no Barack Obama. But Reagan’s right-wing radicalism carried the day in a time when American politics had long been dominated by a New Deal consensus. Thirty-two years later, right-wing economic views have become mainstream and familiar. Obama’s challenge, in many ways, has not changed: He has to persuade the country that Ryanomics, championed by both of his opponents, is a profoundly dangerous thing.