Lipstick on a Wonk
It’s official: Mitt Romney has picked Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan to join him as his running mate. I’ve already written why I think Ryan is a terrible choice. In short, his plan to cut taxes on the rich and gut the welfare state is one of the most unpopular proposals in American politics. 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.
In terms of the election, it’s hard to see how Romney gains from this choice. Because of its large population of working-class whites, Wisconsin has the potential to become a swing state, but for now, Obama has a solid lead. Yes, vice presidential nominees provide a home-state boost, but it’s small—on average, two points. Barring a major change in the race, the most Ryan will do is help Romney lose Wisconsin by a somewhat smaller margin than he would have otherwise.
With that said, a vice presidential choice is most important for what it says about the nominee, and Ryan reflects poorly on Mitt Romney. On the first and most crucial qualification—“Can this person govern the country if the president dies or leaves office”—the answer is “no one knows.” Ryan has no executive experience of any kind: no experience leading a large organization, or something just as complex like a presidential campaign. Executive experience isn’t everything, but it does stick out, especially given Romney’s short tenure in public office.
Ryan has little experience with foreign policy—even less than Romney, in fact—and has spent the majority of his adult life in the House of Representatives. I don’t think this is a bad thing, but by the standards of the Republican Party, which routinely knocks Obama for his lack of private-sector experience, it’s a major failing. Conservative Ryanmania (like Beatlemania, except with white, aging billionaires) notwithstanding, there’s no evidence that Ryan could step in and govern if President Romney were incapacitated.
Paul Ryan exudes confidence, has a tremendous amount of political skill—as Dave Weigel said on Twitter, it’s no small feat to convince Washington journalists that you are a serious budget wonk, despite the complete lack of evidence—and Ryan benefits from the presumption that powerful white men know what they’re doing. But in terms of his ability to lead, he’s no less risky than Sarah Palin. In evaluating Romney’s readiness, we should keep this choice in mind.
The Ryan choice also says a lot about Romney’s standing with conservatives. If he had their full support, he would be free to choose a more moderate running mate, like New Jersey’s Chris Christie. Hell, if he had their partial support, he could choose another conservative in sheep’s clothing, like Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. But he lacks the trust and good will of the conservative establishment. For a presidential challenger, this is dangerous: Romney can’t win the White House if he doesn’t have a unified base.
If there’s anything that would earn him the unconditional support of conservatives, it’s choosing their prophet as his running mate. It satisfies their calls to make this election about “big ideas,” and not just a referendum on President Obama. If you believe that Americans are clamoring for Medicare cuts, this is a swell plan. But since they aren’t, it’s hard to say that this is a good political choice for Romney. Indeed, there’s an even greater downside for his career—if he loses, conservatives will blame him for weighing down Ryan. He will become a pariah, banished from the halls of Republican power.
One last thing. Many people, liberals included, are convinced that Romney is playing a part. “He’s not really a conservative,” they say, “In office, he’ll move to the center.” The Ryan pick should disabuse everyone of that idea. The Right has a firm grip on the Romney campaign, which will grow tighter if he’s elected president. To borrow from David Frum, this is “about forcing a platform on Romney, and then dictating the agenda for that presidency’s first year.”
The stakes have just been raised. If Obama loses, we can look forward to President Mitt Romney, Vice President Paul Ryan, and the most right-wing presidential administration in modern American history.
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