As most everyone is aware, Paul Ryan is to be the Republican Vice Presidential nominee after the convention at the end of August. Back in April, when there were still predictions to be made, I offered that Ryan - who at the time was being discussed but not nearly as much as Marco Rubio, Tim Pawlenty, or Rob Portman, was a possible but less wise choice. He did not represent a major movement toward picking up new voters. Ryan does not belong to a minority group, and is unlikely to give enough of a boost to put his home state of Wisconsin into play, meaning that any advantage he gives must be through his campaigning skills or record as a politician. In terms of campaign skills, Ryan is a skilled speaker and avoids going off message, which are key strengths in comparison to the unpolished and gaffe-prone contestants of the republican primary Romney won. In this way Rep. Ryan is skilled at shoring up the base, but not in any particular way former governor Sarah Palin wasn’t in 2012. Like Palin, Ryan threatens to drive away independent voters and raise democratic turnout by holding unpopular positions.
One of the largest problems with Paul Ryan is that he’s too much like Mitt Romney. To examine the most recent successful VP candidate, Joe Biden, is to see contrast with his Presidential partner. While Obama was young and fiery but lacked experience, Biden was heavily experienced with decades as a senator - he balanced out fears regarding Obama’s readiness. As Obama campaigned on new economic policies, Biden offered assurance regarding national security and general foreign policy – as a VP candidate he balanced out the ticket and made the campaign more comprehensive in its issues covered and defense against attacks. Paul Ryan fails to offer the same coverage to Romney. Romney has his own weak areas – his weakness in foreign policy was only highlighted with his recent tour, and he hasn’t focused on specific policies to excite voters so much as vague ideas. With foreign policy, Ryan has little capability to help with the former – as a congressman he focused on financial and monetary issues – and with the latter he actively hurts the campaign. That’s because now, when Mitt Romney leaves any blanks in his policies, those blanks will be filled by referencing the Ryan plan, the budget Ryan developed to reduce government spending while coming closer to stabilizing the deficit. This means that Romney has to choose between giving the details of his own plan, going with the Ryan plan, or disavowing the Ryan plan as much as possible until his opposition to it is clear. Each of these options have their own flaws – Romney doesn’t want to reveal the details of his own plan because while he can campaign just fine on ideology, the Obama team would do better with a firm plan to attack, as we’ll see with Ryan. In addition the plan would either depress turnout by moving away from the more extreme elements of the party, or drive away independents by being too extreme. The more that Romney sets in stone, the more there is to attack, and the less flexibility he has.
If Romney goes with the Ryan plan instead of his own new one, then the campaign looks more organized. However, the Ryan plan is politically toxic in some key areas. Firstly, it polls terribly with older Americans. The Pew Research Center found that among Americans over the age of 50, 51% oppose Rep. Ryan’s proposed Medicare reform compared to only 29% in favor. While some conservative pundits say that voters simply lack information about the plan and will come to appreciate it as is championed by Romney and Ryan, the same study showed that among those who indicated that they had heard a lot about the proposed reform, the gap between opponents and proponents increased. Now 56% of these older Americans opposed the reform compared to 33% in favor. The Ryan Plan not only reforms Medicare in unpopular privatization, but also implements tax cuts which sell exceptionally poorly with Romney at the head. Ryan would entirely remove taxes on interest, capital gains, and dividends, categories comprising the vast majority of Romney’s income, to the point where Romney would pay less than one percent of income in taxes every year under the Ryan plan. That easily fits into an already effective narrative consisting of Romney as too rich and financially shady. Any salvaging of the Ryan plan would incorporate touting its strong points in every interview and speech, which would first throw it out as an easy target for attacks. So if Romney goes with the Ryan plan or a plan based on Ryan’s, then he opens himself up for attacks.
Looking at these negatives, Romney has chosen to avoid Ryan’s plan while also avoiding forming one of his own. What that means is that Romney has to deny the Ryan plan whenever pressed on it. This creates a choice between a rock and a hard place – Romney can either focus on separating himself from the plan, which underscores a separation from Ryan that would make the ticket as a whole look broken and conflicted, or he can only deny the plan when specifically pressed on it. That would result in the narrative of Romney supporting the plan possibly continuing into the election.
At the core of the matter, Ryan is a risk. Despite all the negatives outlined above, Ryan will bring energy to the campaign and keep people talking longer than a safe pick like Rob Portman or Tim Pawlenty would. This chosen risk easily parallels the choice the McCain campaign made with Sarah Palin – a choice many agree contributed heavily to an Obama victory. That Romney has chosen to take the same risk after seeing what happens when that risk fails indicates that the campaign is truly in trouble – Romney must be thinking that as much as Ryan may hurt the campaign with connections to the Ryan plan, he’s the only one capable of scrapping out a victory.