Mitt Romney had a reputation as the head of Bain Capital for seeking to reduce the private equity firm’s risk and maximizing its reward. But the presumptive Republican presidential nominee took a daring gamble on Saturday by naming House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan as his running mate.
Indeed, when the former Massachusetts governor accidentally introduced Ryan as the “next president of the United States” he was almost encouraging Republican dreams of the presidential elections to come with the Wisconsin congressman atop the ticket.
“Paul Ryan is a bold, outstanding pick,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. “He’s a true leader with a great family who has shown with courage and commitment that he understands the depth of our country’s fiscal problems and what it’s going to take to address them.”
But that same virtue praised by Corker gives Ryan some heavy baggage. It’s the consequence of taking strong ideological stands, rather than simply playing the traditional role of bad cop and attacking the current administration’s policies as the campaign moves forward. It could make the family drama and the Alaskan rivalries that catapulted Sarah Palin into tabloid fodder when Arizona Sen. John McCain picked her as a running mate in 2008 seem like the warm-up act to another VP controversy for the GOP.
The campaign could now evolve into a war of ideas—rather than a referendum on the economy—that Democrats are eager to fight.
As the architect of the past two Republican budget proposals, Ryan has been responsible for translating conservative principles into tough financial choices as it has become clear that the $1 trillion-plus levels of deficit spending are unsustainable, let alone the unfunded commitments of Medicare and Social Security.
His budget plans adhere to the belief in shrinking the federal government. Tax rates would be slashed to two brackets of 10 percent and 25 percent, while Medicare would become a voucher-type program that would provide subsidies for private insurance plans.
Democrats have made no secret of their intention to highlight these changes with older voters who are aghast at the prospect of the social contract in government entitlement programs getting re-written. And that could cost the Romney ticket dearly in Florida, a key swing state.
Shortly after the formal announcement of Ryan’s selection, the progressive Center on Budget and Policy Priorities posted a blistering critique that stems from months of analyses. A chorus of Democrats latched onto the Medicare changes as a weakness, with Obama campaign manager Jim Messina saying they would shift thousands of dollars in health care costs to seniors.
"Romney will have picked one of the only people who could have had an impact in the race. But, not the way he wants,” tweeted Bill Burton, a former White House staffer who co-founded the pro-Obama Super PAC Priorities USA Action.
However, Ryan should help firm up the Republican base for Romney. Gallup released a poll two weeks ago showing that Republicans considered reducing the deficit to be slightly more important than job creation.
It’s not that fixing the economy—the definitive issue across the board in the election—doesn’t matter to those Republican voters. But the deficit is an issue where Romney can preserve and build on his 55 percent to 36 percent edge over Obama, according to a separate Gallup poll.
No Republican leader possesses the same level of credibility on government debt as the Wisconsin congressman. Fellow vice presidential contender Ohio Sen. Rob Portman served as director of the Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush, a tenure that was marked by the kind of government expansion that became anathema to many conservatives.
Portman said in a statement that Ryan is an “accomplished public servant and a leading voice on the most pressing issues facing our country.” There is also the possibility that Ryan can bring the crossover appeal he has in his purple district to the national stage.
Writing for the conservative National Review, John Fund concluded that “smart Democrats” should be scared by Ryan’s addition to the ticket.
“If Ryan is an extremist and his proposals are so unpopular, how has he won election seven times in a Democratic district?” Fund wrote. “Democrats know that Ryan has Reaganesque qualities that make him appealing to independent, middle-class voters.”
And that’s where Romney is taking an unconventional bet that Ryan can work the same magic across the country. The trouble is that several swing states have a different political environment than the Badger State. Romney made the announcement in Virginia—a must-win according to many—and the duo were set to make joint appearances in North Carolina, another swing state. But Florida and its 29 electoral votes could become more of a challenge with Ryan in the veep spot.
“Paul Ryan wants to privatize Social Security. Looking forward to welcoming Mitt and his pick to Florida,” Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., tweeted on Saturday. “There’s nothing brave about cutting the programs that America’s seniors rely on for their health and financial security.”
The Miami Herald noted, “Polls indicate that voters over 50 years old – who comprise more than half the Florida electorate – are wary of changes to the major government entitlement programs, which pump about $96 billion yearly into the hands of the elderly, the infirm and the hospitals, doctors and other providers who give them care.”
Ryan and Romney argue that young people, and the children who follow them, will be robbed of a chance to pursue their dreams if the government doesn’t deal with the growing deficit, in particular the rising costs of Medicare and Social Security. They say that without serious reform we could have generational warfare.
But others say there are compromises to be made—on taxes, spending cuts, and reforms. What the country needs, according to business leaders, former federal officials and many voters, is for the sandbox known as the federal government to turn into boardroom, and for both parties to start making deals.
The intense partisanship has created a toxic environment, and—even if the campaign turns more toward a genuine ideological debate—plenty of sand will be thrown through November. For if Romney’s east coast resume hearkens back to a Republican party last seen during Eisenhower’s era, Ryan embodies the transformation of the GOP over the past several years. And there’s a question of whether they can comfortably co-exist.
The Brookings Institution’s William Galston, a past adviser to President Bill Clinton, predicted shortly after the release of the first Ryan budget in 2011: “It will be interesting to see how many contenders for the Republican presidential nomination calculate that they have no chance of winning the nomination of a Tea Party-dominated primary electorate unless they endorse the Ryan plan. One thing is pretty clear: Any Republican presidential candidate who embraces this plan will have committed general election suicide.”