20 August 2012
Ryan as VP pick is no real "game-changer"
Mitt Romney's selection of Republican Paul Ryan as his vice-presidential nominee invoked strong and conflicting reactions from both ends of the political spectrum. But on one point almost everyone seemed in agreement.
By putting the author of the Republican Party's controversial and ambitious budget proposal on the ticket, Romney transformed the race from a referendum on President Barack Obama into a choice between two drastically different visions of government. But there's good reason to think this view overstates the significance of Romney's selection.
Nearly everyone has a vested interest in playing up the choice. Movement conservatives want Romney to offer a full-throated defence of Ryan's budget and broader political philosophy. Liberals want to draw attention to a Ryan budget plan that doesn't poll well with independents. And the media wants to cast any story in the gravest terms possible. But it's quite possible Ryan won't dramatically reshape the race.
It's not as if Romney had been dissociating himself from the Wisconsin congressman. The former Massachusetts governor has frequently praised Ryan, stating ''he's very supportive'' of the Republican budget proposal. And Romney's own policy agenda draws heavily from Ryan's. Both plans offer large-scale tax cuts offset by the closing of unspecified loopholes and deductions. And both want to greatly shrink the size of government, but propose no cuts to the defence budget.
There are important differences. The Ryan plan is much more explicit about what programs it would cut than Romney has been. And the Ryan plan also touches the third rail of politics by proposing cuts to Medicare that would transform the single-payer health insurance program into a voucher system. Is Romney inextricably tied to these positions? To some extent, but that's primarily because it's in his party's budget proposal, not because the architect of the plan happens to be on the ticket.
Before making his choice, Romney had generally endorsed the Ryan blueprint while leaving enough flexibility to distance himself from specific ideas or policies that would be too politically toxic. And that's still where things stand after the VP announcement. ''I have my budget plan,'' Romney reiterated last week. ''And that's the budget plan we're going to run on.''
Considering Romney ran against Obamacare despite enacting the same reform in Massachusetts, I wouldn't count on him being beholden to any particular plan. So maybe the VP selection doesn't force Romney's hand to the degree some claim.
But doesn't it mean that Romney himself wants to dramatically change the tone of the campaign? Why pick Ryan unless you want to actively champion his ideas?
The campaign probably does want to shake things up a bit, but there's also another factor that helps explain the choice. Romney simply liked Ryan a lot and the congressman was someone he could see himself working with. Romney's been remarkably risk averse throughout the race. And, as such, the burden of proof should be on those who suggest he's ready to take the campaign in a bold new direction.
The notion of the VP pick as an automatic game-changer is amiss on two counts. First, it overstates the extent to which Ryan dictates the tone of the Romney campaign. And, second, it understates the degree to which Ryan's ideas were already at play in the election.
No doubt there's still uncertainty as to how the choice will play out. What kind of tone will Ryan strike on the campaign trail? What will voters think of him? How will Team Obama try and frame the choice?
Of all Romney's potential running mates, Ryan could well have the largest impact on the campaign. But that says more about the infrequency with which vice-presidential nominees dramatically alter an election than it does about the potential for the newest development to reset the race.