When Mitt Romney announced that Rep. Paul Ryan, the sometimes-controversial chair of the House Budget Committee would be his running mate, the media reaction was one of surprise. Most gave Romney credit for boldness, which by itself contrasted with the received wisdom of Romney as a conservative-in-strategy, risk-averse politician. The New York Daily News, not exactly known for its conservative point of view, called the selection a “boldly clarifying jolt,” while Bloomberg’s editors praised Romney for “audacity.” Both newspapers in Tampa, Florida, where Republicans will hold their convention and in the state where the election may well be decided, called the choice of Ryan “surprisingly bold” and “a powerful statement.”
That’s not to say that the media failed to notice the risks of being “bold.” Most of the analysis focused on how Romney had put at risk swing states like Florida and Ohio by choosing a man best known for his plan to reform entitlement programs, which would scare seniors away from the Republican ticket. Others wondered why Romney would risk distracting attention from jobs and the economy to make Medicare – a reliable Democratic issue – the main focus of the election. Surely this would allow Barack Obama to take the high road, analysts concluded, and engage in a fight over the very vision of the American system of government, a fight Romney would almost certainly lose.
In other words, Romney took a big gamble with Ryan in two ways – in betting that Obama wouldn’t take the challenge for a substantive debate, and that voters will know the difference. A few days later, it’s clear that Romney won the first bet, and is at least ahead on the second.
The risk in moving away from the economy, or at least broadening the electoral debate to other issues, is real and substantial, but also has an upside. As voters remained narrowly focused on the jobs reports and economic indicators, those metrics took on an oversized importance and began to dwarf the breadth of opposition to Obama’s overall policy direction. That also had risk for Romney, and the Romney campaign knew it.
If Romney made the election about nothing more than job creation, a few months of mediocre-to-fair jobs reports could have sunk the entire election effort. In order to make the issue work for the Republican nominee – and also to avoid looking as though Romney was rooting for failure – the issue of job creation had to be couched in a larger context of government intervention, regulation, and capital seizure for escalating budgets and deficits.
Not talking about deficit control and budget reform arguably was a bigger risk for Romney. Choosing Paul Ryan elevated the GOP’s best voice on those issues. Ryan has already been well-tested in high-profile media debates over budgets and entitlement reform, and in three key encounters with the Obama administration – two with Obama himself – where Ryan easily prevailed.
That still left the risk that Obama would take the gauntlet flung down by Romney’s selection of Ryan and go toe-to-toe with Romney in a debate between supply-side and populist economics. In times of economic hardship, populism sells, as politicians well know, mainly because of its simplistic division of haves and have-nots as the basis for redistributive policies. As the Associated Press acknowledged yesterday (and many of us have argued since the first Recovery Summer in 2010), we have the worst post-World War II economic recovery in US history in nearly every category, which means that the populist One Percenter populism which Obama has fed since last year might still have life left within it.
That risk still exists, but at least from the way Obama and Joe Biden have reacted to Ryan’s appointment, it has faded considerably. Has Team Obama taken up the gauntlet and offered a rebuttal to Romney’s view of government? Hardly. On Tuesday of this week, ABC’s Jake Tapper reported from three separate events that the President of the United States was reduced to talking about Seamus The Roof Riding Dog, a story dug up from a 1983 Romney family vacation, as an argument for his re-election. The super-PAC run by his former White House media staffer “accidentally” had its controversial ad run in Ohio, which strongly implied that Romney caused the cancer-related death of a laid-off steelworker’s spouse.
That was hardly the worst of it, though. On the same day, the Vice President spoke to a crowd in Danville, Virginia about Romney’s plan to unleash Wall Street from all regulation. Speaking to a crowd with a significant number of African-American voters, Biden slipped into a Southern cant to warn them that “they goin’ to put y’all back in chains.” When confronted about Biden’s race-baiting, the Obama campaign refused to apologize, claiming that the Romney campaign took the remark out of context.
Clearly, the incumbents have no desire to engage Romney and Ryan in a serious debate. Romney’s big all-in raise with Ryan has now made that crystal clear. Thanks to the leadership vacuum produced by the current President and Vice President on any kind of substantive economic debate, the Republican challengers are now doing what once seemed unthinkable – launching an offensive on Medicare, one that has Team Obama already stumbling for a defense.
Finally, we have the risks in the swing states. Did Romney give up any advantage in Ohio and Florida? Has he scared off seniors? Rasmussen polled likely voters in Ohio and discovered just the opposite. Not only does Ryan score a majority favorable opinion (51/39), voters are eight points more likely to vote for Romney than less likely (40/32). Ryan’s best numbers come from seniors, which are fifteen points more likely to vote for Romney with Ryan on the ticket (46/31), and independents twenty-four points more likely to do so (42/18).
Romney gets a similar payoff in Florida. Survey USA polled registered voters in the key swing state and put Ryan’s favorability rating at a +11, 43/32. His best numbers come from seniors at 53/30, who also have the highest familiarity with Ryan’s economic proposals (81 percent). Fifty-nine percent of Floridians rated the choice of Ryan as excellent (28 percent) or good (31 percent), with 75 percent of seniors agreeing. Overall, a majority of registered voters in Florida (57 percent) say Ryan makes them more likely to vote for Romney, including 64 percent of seniors – and 62 percent of those under 35 years of age.
We have a long way to go before the election, of course. At least in the first week of the Romney/Ryan ticket, Romney’s big gamble is paying off handsomely – and Democrats don’t have a clue how to handle it.