Well so much for the long-awaited Etch A Sketch moment and general election return of Mitt Romney, Massachusetts moderate. His announcement of Paul Ryan as his vice presidential pick brings a sharp ideological focus to Romney’s muddled political persona. The general election Romney will be as “severely conservative” as primary campaign Romney wanted to be.
It’s a bold pick. But I’m not sure it’s a sensible one. It even has a whiff of desperation about it.
As I wrote Friday the pick brings with it a feeling of strategic whiplash. Team Romney has run a famously vague campaign, long on anti-Obama attacks (some more grounded in reality than others) and short on policy specifics. This has presumably been a conscious choice on the campaign’s part: Keep the election focused on President Obama, his record, and the economy. Don’t give Democrats any concrete proposals against which they can get traction. Run as a blank slate so as not to get in the way of the voters’ dissatisfaction with the incumbent.
A Romney-Ryan ticket means that the slate is no longer blank. It’s suddenly chock full of detailed proposals (not all of which add up) and while Mitt Romney had previously endorsed them, he now owns them. Indeed it raises the question: If Romney had to import a policy platform from his number two, why is he on the top of the ticket? (I guess this is what it means to be a CEO in politics.)
So why the sudden, lurching change in direction? A couple of likely reasons spring to mind: First it’s a sop to a base that has never been comfortable with Romney. Sure they’re stoked to go out and vote against Obama, but the diminutive leash on which they have their presidential nominee was on display in their collective freakout this week over Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul’s touting Romneycare (of which Paul Ryan is not a fan).
In this sense (among others) the Ryan selection is a big gamble. Ryan’s Medicare plan (which involves replacing Medicare with a voucher of diminishing value, but continuing to call the program Medicare so he can say he’s not dismantling Medicare) is wildly unpopular. A July Democracy Corps survey found that Obama’s lead over Romney doubled, from three to six points, if respondents were exposed to the arguments for and against the Ryan budget. “Am looking forward to the debate where [Vice President Joe] Biden talks about Medicare in every answer. Literally,” Center for American Progress President Neera Tanden tweeted Friday night.
The hope is apparently that Ryan’s fresh-faced, bright-eyed, happy budget nerd persona will charm and disarm swing voters who might be repelled by his policies. (For more on the positives of the Ryan pick, I commend Mary Kate Cary’s 10 reasons why he’s the right choice.) One key thing to watch will be the extent to which the media sticks to its standard descriptive of Ryan as a brave or bold pol because of his perceived willingness to take on big, hard issues like entitlements. As The Atlantic's James Fallows and The New Yorker's Jonathan Chait have argued, that reputation is hollow. Ryan is a poseur budget truth teller.
Second the pick indicates a sense that the three polls that came out this week showing a growing Obama lead weren’t a statistical fluke. The straight referendum strategy wasn’t working out quite as they’d planned and they needed to make a bold move before things got away from them. As NBC’s Mark Murray tweeted last night, “The Romney camp's pick of Ryan makes this crystal clear: The campaign realizes the race can't just be about the economy.” The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein also had it right: “You don't make a risky pick like Paul Ryan if you think the fundamentals favor your candidate. You make a risky pick like Paul Ryan if you think the fundamentals don't favor your candidate.” The New York Times’s Nate Silver tweeted, “Not a pick you make if you think you're ahead,” which was about as blunt as veteran, independent political analyst Stuart Rothenberg who tweeted, “Ryan? Sounds like a Hail Mary, doesn’t it?”
It does at that.