The Illogic of Romney Picking Paul Ryan for Vice President

Is Mitt Romney really going to fill in his missing policy details with someone else’s vision? Whose candidacy would that be?

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Paul Ryan speaks at The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif.

Do you hear that noise? It's the sound of millions of conservative hearts going pitter-patter over this week's speculation boomlet regarding the prospect of presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney tapping House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan to be vice president. Maybe they'll get their fondest wish, maybe Tampa will be flooded with Romney-Ryan signs and bumper stickers in a couple of weeks. But I think there's a basic illogic to the notion that makes it hard to see it coming to pass.

NBC's "First Read" and others have pointed to Romney's comments to the network about wanting a visionary vice president as a nod in Ryan's direction. Romney said Thursday that, "a vision for the country that adds something to the political discourse about the direction of the country. I mean, I happen to believe this is a defining election for America that we're going to be voting for what kind of America we're going to have." Certainly Ryan has a well-established vision for where he wants to take the country—but therein lies the danger. Whose candidacy would this be anyway? If Romney decides to import the Ryan vision for America lock, stock, and barrel, he'll run the risk of seeming to be a me-too nominee: He doesn't have a vision for America of his own so he decided to embrace someone else's. What then is the raison d'etre for a Romney presidency if it's a Ryan agenda? Certainly Romney has endorsed the Ryan budget, but adopting it as his own would be taking that to a whole different level.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

This potential problem would be mitigated if Romney had laid out a strong vision for the country so far, but he has run a campaign which has become famous (infamous?) for its lack of policy specifics and detail. At the same time, Romney has by apparent design remained something of a personal blank slate for the general public (except for the devastating definition Democrats gave it in July). Romney's basic campaign message has been: I'm not-Obama (since the middle of June, more than 90 percent of the ads Romney has run have been negative, according to the Washington Post's ad tracker). Is his campaign really going to fill in that blank slate with someone else's detailed agenda?

There's an argument that the three polls out yesterday giving Obama an outside-the-margin-of-error lead could also spur a game-changing pick a la Ryan. "The conventional wisdom had been that Romney was going to be picking a running mate in a coin-flip race. Well that's not the case now. How does that change his mind? Does it help Paul Ryan?" asks "First Read," adding that Romney has gone from picking a running mate from a position of strength to "picking one from a position of weakness." That seems a bit strong, especially based on one set of polls. Does the Romney team want to exacerbate a perception of weakness by making what could be seen as a panicky pick (a sop to a jittery base, a Hail Mary in the face of a widening gap in the polls, and a whiplash-inducing strategic change from deliberate policy vagueness to a highly controversial off-the-shelf economic agenda).

Exit question: Given Ryan boomlet this week, how can the Romney campaign let the faithful down gently if they do indeed go with a more conventional choice?

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