It could not have been more perfect: the handsome, strong-jawed mainliner introducing his equally handsome, strong-jawed back-up player. Paul Ryan, as many have remarked, could easily be Mitt Romney’s sixth son. He is just as clean-living, hard-working, and bromide-spouting as the Republican presidential candidate himself.
Of course, Romney being Romney, the event in Norfolk, Virginia on Saturday could not go without a major gaffe. The presumptive nominee introduced his running mate as “the next president of the United States, Paul Ryan.”
But maybe it was more than just a slip of the tongue. From the moment the buzz went out, Ryan became the heavyweight on the ticket. He will provide gravitas for the conservatives, and a clear target for the Democrats.
Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker said it first:
“To envisage what Republicans would do if they win in November, the person to understand is not necessarily Romney, who has been a policy cipher all his public life. The person to understand is Paul Ryan,” wrote Lizza, in a piece on Ryan that appeared more than a week before the choice was announced.
To those in the know it was obvious that, in a campaign intent on making the economy the issue, Ryan would be much more the general than the adjutant.
He is also a political gold mine.
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Ryan brings youth, dynamism and unquestioned brains to the table, as well as a photogenic wife and adorable children. At 42, he already has a solid 14 years of legislative experience behind him and, as the chairman of the House Budget Committee, he has impressive economic credentials.
Tea Partiers and other right wing conservatives should be patting themselves on the back at the addition of such a strong weapon to their arsenal.
But the fact that Democrats seem to be rubbing their hands in glee at Romney’s surprising choice should give the Republican campaign pause.
Ryan gives President Barack Obama and his team a clearly defined target to shoot at, and they lost no time in locking and loading.
“This election is about values, and today Romney doubled down on his commitment to take our country back to the failed policies of the past,” wrote Jim Messina, the president’s campaign manager, in an email sent out to millions of Obama supporters within hours of the Ryan announcement.
Top Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod joined the fray with another mass mailing outlining Ryan’s shortcomings as a candidate:
“This morning, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan stood on a platform in Norfolk, Virginia, and introduced themselves to the country as "America's Comeback Team," wrote Axelrod. "’Go Back Team’ would be more appropriate — because a Romney-Ryan administration is the definition of a fast track back to the failed, top-down economic policies of the past.”
Ryan was labeled a “bold” choice — in contrast to Ohio Senator Rob Portman, who was seen as “safe.” It is actually a sign that the Romney campaign is getting a wee bit desperate.
In the wake of some embarrassing performances abroad and at home, Romney was starting to sink in the polls. Drafting Ryan into the fray is an attempt to press the “reset” button. To borrow a rather unfortunate reference from the 2008 campaign of Senator John McCain, the selection of Ryan is meant to be a Game Changer.
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Ryan is unlikely to torpedo Romney’s election bid the way that many think Sarah Palin’s antics sank the McCain campaign. But he does have some glaring liabilities. As Lizza points out in a more recent blog, Ryan has little or no private sector experience, and is a foreign policy novice.
He could also be a problem for Romney in Florida, a vital swing state. Ryan’s record on Cuba is suspect; he voted at least three times to end the embargo on the island, something that will doubtless alienate some Cuban Americans.
What he will do is serve as a lightening rod for voters’ fears that the Republicans are out to gut entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, as well as give already wealthy Americans an even bigger leg up on the rest of us through tax cuts and deregulation.
Ryan has authored the budget plan that Republicans are defending. It is a controversial bill, one which replaces the government’s open-ended commitment to seniors with a voucher-style program. While that would reduce the federal government’s costs, it could have a detrimental effect on health care benefits for the most vulnerable segment of the population. It also calls for cuts in education and research, and would provide more tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.
The plan, called the Path to Prosperity, is the third iteration of Ryan’s budget, which he has been working on for more than eight years.
It has been sharply criticized by the White House, most publicly in a speech the president delivered at George Washington University in April 2011. With Ryan sitting prominently in the front row, at the express invitation of the president, Obama shredded the Path to Prosperity.
“I believe it paints a vision of our future that is deeply pessimistic,” he said.
Ryan was furious, and let it show. He accused the president of “rank demagoguery,” and went on the talk circuit to defend himself and savage the president.
“It’s the laziest intellectual argument I’ve ever seen … to affix motives and ideas to your political adversary that are just outlandish, and then just knock them down and win the argument by default,” he said in an interview with conservative radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt.
It’s personal, and it’s bitter. The main race now is not likely to be between Obama and an increasingly irrelevant Romney, but between the president and the brand-new Republican VP.
It’s a contest that the president and his team seem eager to enter.