Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan, the GOP’s tousled-haired prophet of national fiscal responsibility, focuses a lurching campaign with a new sense of conservative ideological stability, policy gravitas —and marketable high-mindedness.
Underlying the move is an almost unheard-of gamble in the annals of recent presidential elections.
Romney is rolling the dice on a bet that voters crave “substance” — in this case, a deep debate about the deficit and entitlement cuts that Romney himself has mostly dodged up to this point.
“Any time you have the American public as upset angry and frustrated with Congress and with Washington as they have been, people are always looking for an open door,” said veteran Democratic strategist Peter Fenn.
“The adult conversation thing is what the public is calling for, [but] the trouble is: Two months before election time, people dig in their heels. It’s not when they extend their hands.”
But this is a different year, a bitter slog even by the low-road standards of reelection campaigns.
On Sunday, the Romney campaign was hitting the elevation theme — and slamming the reset button — as hard as they could. “THE CHOICE: “SUBSTANCE-DRIVEN RACE” VS. “VICIOUS, SHAMEFUL,” was the subject line of one email emanating from Boston on Sunday morning.
Before the Ryan announcement, few months had been as vicious or shameful as August. The past few weeks were a mirthless, substance-free Groundhog Day of phony attacks and disingenuous whining.
The month began with the Romney campaign airing what independent arbiters concur was a nearly fictional claim that Obama had ushered in a new age of welfare dependency by granting states vouchers to loosen work requirements. Never mind that Romney as governor of Massachusetts had requested one himself.
Then Obama’s pet super PAC returned fire with a dissembling spot of its own, suggesting that Romney had, somehow, personally driven a steelworker’s wife into an early grave.
Fact-checkers howled. Democrats giggled. For a minimal investment — the ad hardly aired anywhere — Priorities USA Action put Romney on the defensive.
If the mud fight has evoked universal disgust, its political effect has been distressingly asymmetrical to Romney’s Boston brain trust. It’s hurt him more than Obama, polls suggest.
Despite a combined campaign and super PAC attack that has pumped $100 million into anti-Romney advertising, Obama’s personal popularity has been remarkably stable amid GOP claims that he’s a hope-and-change hypocrite. Not so for Romney, whose approval ratings have wilted in a summer of negativity and gaffes.
For the GOP’s conservative base, Ryan’s entry holds the tantalizing promise of elevating Romney’s game, inciting a debate on the familiar and friendly battlefield of the tea party-dominated 2010 midterms.
The 42-year-old Wisconsin congressman “knows the game — he knows math — he knows exactly what the country needs,” said Alan Simpson, the former Republican senator from Wyoming Obama tapped to co-chair his deficit commission.
“There will be an adult conversation, therefore the children will throw emotion, fear, guilt, and racism on him,” he added. “They will bomb him, bomb him, shell him coastline and bunker, and he will survive. He has facts. He uses math. He’s damn good. He’s excellent.”
Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s labor secretary — and unabashed Keynesian — disagrees with almost everything Ryan stands for, but agrees the House budget chairman will elevate the conversation — albeit in ways that Romney might come to regret.
“Paul Ryan is the reverse of Sarah Palin,” Reich wrote shortly after the Ryan pick was announced. “She was all right-wing flash without much substance. He’s all right-wing substance without much flash.”
In that sense, the Ryan pick is a classic flanking maneuver after months of frontal assaults on Obama by Romney and his super PAC allies.
Boston hopes to accentuate the differences between a 2008 Obama campaign that prided itself on attacking problems regardless of the political consequences — and his knee-capping 2012 operation.
It was telling that Romney, during his introduction of Ryan in Norfolk, emphasized his running mate’s Obama ’08 attributes – his civility and commitment to confounding election year orthodoxies by tackling intractable problems during a campaign. Romney didn’t linger on the controversial details of Ryan’s budget proposal.
Ryan, Romney said, “appeals to the better angels of our nature,” adding: “There are a lot of people in the other party who might disagree with Paul Ryan. I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t respect his character and judgment.”
But the risk for Romney is that the substance Ryan brings to his campaign will be radioactive.
Three elements make it a huge gamble, in its own way just as risky as John McCain’s Palin selection.
The first, and most obvious, is Ryan’s challenge to Medicare and Social Security — dysfunctional but beloved entitlement programs.
Over the past two decades, a series of efforts to rein in entitlements have met with less than enthusiastic responses from voters and have often been abandoned after triggering howls of political outrage.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s attempt in 1995 to limit the growth of Medicare took heat from President Bill Clinton and other Democrats who said Gingrich was intent on destroying the program.
Democratic-linked groups poured millions into ads noting that the speaker once said the program was destined to “wither on the vine.” The ads took a toll, though Gingrich insisted he was only talking about the traditional, fee-for-service system, not the overall program.
In 1998, Clinton publicly flirted with the idea of allowing workers to put some of their Social Security funds into the stock market. Most Democrats were never enamored of the idea, and both Congress and the White House essentially gave up on it the next year.
Seven years later, in 2005, President George W. Bush made a high-profile push for a similar Social Security reform proposal. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) , the then-minority leader, told Bush to “forget about” it. The plan quickly died in the face of near-universal opposition from Democratic lawmakers and a decided lack of enthusiasm from Congressional Republicans wary of being attacked on the issue.
The Obama campaign hopes to slow-walk Romney and Ryan through the same minefield.
“With Mitt Romney’s support, Ryan would end Medicare as we know it and slash the investments we need to keep our economy growing — all while cutting taxes for those at the very top,” wrote Obama campaign manager Jim Messina in a fundraising email to supporters Saturday.
“Over the next few days, Romney’s campaign and its allies will tell a very different story about Paul Ryan.”
There are lesser-known elements of Ryan’s plan that could prove equally unpopular, said Robert Bixby, executive director of the non-partisan Concord Coalition, a leading fiscal responsibility watchdog.
In addition to remaking entitlements, Ryan’s 2011 deficit-reduction proposal — which will be hung on Romney whether or not he agrees on all the particulars — targets some of the most popular middle-class tax breaks in the book.
“These are not loopholes but middle-class entitlements that run through the tax code: employee-provided health care, mortgage interest and charitable deductions, deductions for state and local taxes,” Bixby said.
The second Romney-Ryan gamble is more subtle: Ryan’s forte has been the deficit, not job creation — which was supposed to be the central theme of Romney’s campaign.
Ryan voted for the auto bailout and often talks about the need to stimulate private-sector job growth by rationalizing the tax code. Yet he is well off, even by the standards of an increasingly affluent Congress, with a net worth estimated at $900,000 to $3 million.
The Obama campaign was more worried about Romney tapping someone with a more gritty working-class background, like Tim Pawlenty. And they have already begun to mock Ryan as a mini-Mitt, with a deficit sermon on his tongue – and millions in the bank.
But his bona fides in the deficit debate are undeniable — even Obama has called him “serious.”
And fiscal hawks like Simpson argue that the jobs imperative and deficit debate are the same thing. Voters, especially the older independents who could swing the race, are sophisticated enough to understand that, he said.
“The conversation that will be adult will be as to what the hell is going to happen to this country, especially with the unsustainable course of this monster that’s on autopilot which is Medicare,” Simpson told POLITICO.
The third risk is one incurred by any new player on the national stage: the hazard that they will fall victim to attacks on their strengths, not weakness.
Democrats are already attacking Ryan as a false prophet on the deficit and spending whose plans will actually raise core costs, including the health care burdens on working families, and slash revenues by further cutting taxes for the very wealthy.
“I don’t believe voters will buy Ryan’s plan,” Reich told POLITICO. “The more they understand it, the more they’ll reject it. It’s pure social Darwinism — penalizing the poor, rewarding the rich and forcing the rest of us to fend for ourselves. It turns Medicare into vouchers that can’t possibly keep up with the rising costs of health care, thereby shifting those costs onto the elderly. And its budget math takes no account of the role of public investment in increasing productivity.”
All of this may explain why Romney, despite his embrace of Ryan’s principled approach, isn’t actually endorsing his running mate’s plans.
He wants the elevation without the air sickness. A spokeswoman on Saturday said her boss “applauds” Ryan’s bold plans, but will craft his own budget blueprint, thank you very much.
“He has said it moves us in the right direction. He has said that if it’s sent to him, he would sign it. And he has said that he will put forward his own plan,” one senior Romney adviser told POLITICO’s Alex Burns. “He is the presidential candidate.”
Yet ideas are sometimes more powerful than the candidates who unleash them. And if the Ryan gambit isn’t a game changer in 2012, it may have set the stage for the long-term deficit deal both Obama and Romney say is needed — whatever the outcome of the election.
“The only reason to be optimistic is we have to deal with these issues. We’re just running out of time,” the Concord Coalition’s Bixby said. “We’re going to have to deal with this situation. You can’t kill off the baby boomers. …. I’m not really optimistic we can have an adult conversation. Nevertheless, if we start having one, maybe it will become more adult as time goes on.”