The right wing mounted a very public campaign to pressure him to choose Rep. Paul Ryan, author of the GOP budget plan that Democrats have successfully used as a truncheon. And Romney did what he does best: he caved.
Or, perhaps more charitably, Romney realized that he was playing a losing hand and needed a joker.
You’d be forgiven if you think you’ve heard this all before: John McCain couldn’t choose whom he wanted in 2008 (Joe Lieberman), because the right wing would never forgive him. Instead, he went for, yes, a game changer in Sarah Palin. And it did change the game—for the worse: After a brief flurry of enthusiasm from the base, it became clear that the main effect of the choice of Palin was to ensure full employment for Tina Fey.
Romney’s choice was meant to signal that he truly believes in Ryan’s budget plan, which would effectively eliminate federal spending on everything from the FBI to Smokey the Bear—except, of course, for the Defense Department.
What it really signaled was that Romney is still desperate to prove his conservative credentials to the GOP base, which has never really trusted him. He hasn’t the confidence—or perhaps the core–to run as his own candidate. Instead, he chose to run as Paul Ryan’s candidate. You have to wonder how President Romney would govern, given his willingness to bend in any direction if it suits his immediate purposes. One thing would be certain: he wouldn’t do anything to anger the party’s right wing. (You also have to wonder how Vice President Ryan would put up with the invisibility that is the officeholder’s lot.)
As for Rep. Ryan, he’s garnered a reputation as a serious thinker, largely from journalists who seem to believe that anyone who understands the budget must be, even if his proposal would account for the largest redistribution of wealth upwards in U.S. history.
Journalists who understand Ryan know that he’s reshaped the Republican party in his own image, forcing the GOP to play a losing game on topics like privatizing Social Security and the debt-ceiling debacle.
Ryan’s own belief system is based on that of Ayn Rand, the crackpot philosopher of unbridled capitalism who believed that the rich are morally superior beings whom the government (and the poor) are trying to destroy. If you take that as your starting point, it’s not hard to get to the Ryan budget plan. In fact, even Catholic bishops, who are essentially Republicans in clerical garb, felt the need to criticize Ryan’s plan as an attack on the poor. As a Catholic, Ryan seemed stung by the criticism, even though Objectivism is as anti-religion as Marxism.
Ryan has built his career on numbers, so he hasn’t been so visible on social issues. Still, he’s a reliable anti-gay vote. He supported a constitutional amendment to restrict marriage to opposite sex couples, as well as a ban on gay adoptions in Washington, DC. He also opposed the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
Ryan’s enough of a fellow traveler that the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America and the Faith and Freedom Coalition all issued statements of praise.
So what does Romney get by choosing Ryan? An ecstatic right wing—and an ecstatic Democratic party. In choosing Ryan, Romney has given the Democrats a gift of immense proportion: The chance to make the campaign a referendum on Ryan’s budget proposal instead of Obama’s economic performance. Combined with the existing meme about Romney’s wealth and taxes (or relative absence thereof), this is a potent theme for Democrats.
For hardcore fans of Ryan, this is exactly the debate that they want to have. For GOP strategists who would prefer to win, this is exactly the debate they don’t want to have, because Ryan’s plan polls dismally with the public.
Now the election is no longer about President Obama’s economic plan, but about what the alternative might look like. If you like the alternative, you’re thrilled—but not many people do.
Plus, we have yet to have the discussion about whether a Congressman from Wisconsin with limited foreign-policy credentials is really qualified to be a heartbeat away from the presidency. The last member of the House to be elected vice president was John Nance Garner, who was on the ticket with FDR. Usually, the choice smacks of desperation. The number of House members who lost their VP bid include Geraldine Ferraro and Bill Miller.
It’s hard to imagine that Romney wants to follow in the electoral footsteps of Walter Mondale and Barry Goldwater. But he’s just taken a giant leap in that direction.