Paul Ryan might be a familiar pretty face among the wonky set, but for most voters he is an unknown figure, a minor House representative from someplace in the middle of the country whose name they first encountered at the start of the month. His primetime premiere at the GOP convention last night was supposed to be his coming out moment, an occasion to sell voters on the idea that he is a leader they can see leading the country. Instead, Ryan revealed that he cannot escape the conservative think tank culture that spawned him. It is sure to satisfy the rightwingers who filled the convention hall in Tampa, but the vice=presidential candidate offered little of substance or style for those yet to be decided voters.
Typically these convention speeches serve two purposes: building a narrative of one's life story and spinning a vision on the purpose of government. Ryan failed in both directions. He barely touched upon his personal biography. There were the requisite shout-outs to his wife, kids, and mother and he briefly trumpeted his mother’s life path following his father’s untimely death when Ryan was still a teenager, the sort of life altering story politicians typically use as pivots but one that Ryan deflected away from his own experience.
Beyond the recognition of his family, Ryan briefly noted the father-son age gap between he and Romney along with his spot as the first Gen X candidate. He accepted the nomination as a means to fulfill "the calling of my generation," and later claimed that his iPod ran from AC/DC to Led Zeppelin, an attempt to distance himself as young and hip compared to Romney. It was, however, an odd choice for someone accepting the Gen X mantle, ditching the flannel of grunge for AC/DC, a band that began to fall from prominence before Ryan entered high school. As far as personal narrative, that was about all that Ryan offered, leaving his rise through the network of Washington think tanks and congressional staffs unmentioned.
Nor did Ryan present a conservative vision on federal government. He was in full attack dog mode. Rebukes of the Obama administration framed each point raised in the speech. And boy, were they doozies. As numerous other outlets have noted this morning, Ryan's speech was littered with outright lies, a now common practice in the Romney-Ryan campaign, as if the two are testing the political media to see just how far they can go before they break the system.
To be sure, it was a well-delivered speech. Ryan has an ease onstage that Romney has struggled to achieve throughout his multiple runs at the presidency. If one ignores the substance, or lack thereof, Ryan is a clearly charming individual, even if he left his personal story largely untouched. He's handsome in a Midwestern, unthreatening manner, the humble nerd who still wears his old boxy suits because he doesn't realize he's PX90'd his way into a Brad Pitt circa Fight Club physique. He has a picturesque family with three adorable blond children and by all accounts seems likeable enough as a human being.
But voters need more from their candidates. It's not enough to have a winning smile. One also must offer ideas on where they would lead the country. At one point not so long ago, Ryan would readily offer up such plans; while his budget proposals are radical Randian concepts of decimating the federal government, they at least articulated a model of governance. Ryan couldn't summon those ideas in Tampa, relying upon the bogeyman of Obama without crafting his own schema of governance. He fear mongered about Obama taking away your grandma's Medicare and sending it to someone who hasn't earned it. "We will not duck the tough issues, we will lead," Ryan said near the end of his acceptance speech, a claim at odds with almost every other line from his address.
Ryan had one audience in mind with the red meat attacks he tossed to the crowd. It wasn't the swing state voters Romney needs to carry in November. Ryan is solely focused on the writers at The National Review and the volunteers who staff Tea Party rallies. After last night there shouldn't be any lingering questions: Ryan is clearly the leader of movement conservatives, ready to accept the mantle of 2016 frontrunner should Romney lose this election.