So it’s Paul Ryan. In a move sure to appease a base that he has had an extremely difficult time mollifying, Mitt Romney bypassed the safety of a Ron Portman or Tim Pawlenty and went bold by picking the brightest, most energetic rising star in the Republican Party for his VP nominee. The Wisconsin Representative is many things, but boring isn’t one of them. And, unlike the last Republican nominee for the position, Ryan isn’t either nuts or unqualified. But let’s be honest, if the point was to nominate someone smarter than Sarah Palin, just about anyone with a pulse and a diploma would’ve sufficed.
The question that begs to be answered is why Ryan? Yes, he’s a Tea Party favorite and yes, he’ll energize the base in a way that Portman or Pawlenty or even Marco Rubio – who I think would’ve been a truly courageous pick – couldn't have done. But, as I’ve pointed out repeatedly, the Republican base is about as energized as any I’ve seen. They may not be in love with Mitt Romney but they are united in their hatred of Barack Obama. If a pet rock were going up against Obama, they’d vote for the pet rock.
So why throw more fresh meat at a pack of wolves who’ve already made up their minds anyway? The smart choice would’ve been a candidate who might’ve had more pull with the one demographic Romney is going to need to win the White House: independents. Why go with a pick that seemingly adds nothing new to the mix, while simultaneously endangers badly needed votes among moderates and independents who view Ryan as too extreme for their tastes?
There are only two reasons that make any sense. First off, Romney knew he was being pummeled by the Obama attack ads regarding his Bain Capital days and his tax returns and he knew he couldn’t extricate himself from them, not without succumbing to outside pressures and releasing more returns, which might’ve caused even more erosion of his poll numbers. He needed to change the subject fast. Guess what the media will not be talking about for the next couple of weeks?
Secondly, and more importantly, Romney needed a vision. The simple fact was that, for all the hoopla over his supposed vast experience in the private sector, he was never able to galvanize the electorate or articulate a clear plan for America. The usual catch-phrases – lower taxes, less spending, balanced budgets – weren’t cutting it. Even the conservative media outlets were struggling to define Romney’s message, mostly because Romney didn’t have one. Well now he does, courtesy of his VP nominee. Whether you agree with Paul Ryan’s vision of America or not, there’s no denying that it’s well defined and anything but ambiguous.
We will finally have a true debate about whose vision for America’s future is best over the next three months, and this is where the train may jump the tracks for Romney in the long run. While the Ryan nod may grant him a temporary stay of execution from the gut punches he was taking over his tax returns, perhaps even allow him to get all the way to the convention without any further hemorrhaging, sooner or later, Romney will have to grapple with the fact that his VP candidate is a lightning rod. It’s one thing to appropriate your running mate’s message and vision, it’s quite another when that running mate becomes THE story and ends up overshadowing your whole candidacy.
Because that is exactly what Paul Ryan brings to the Republican ticket. Nothing more, nothing less. From here on in, everywhere he goes, not only will Mitt Romney have to defend Ryan’s budget, which most people who know Romney will tell you he would never embrace and which has all the popularity of a Buddhist at a heavy metal concert, but he will have to deal with the fact that his running mate is more popular than him.
When Barack Obama was choosing his VP four years ago, there were a lot of Democrats who were urging him to pick Hillary Clinton. It would unite the party, they all said. But Obama chose Joe Biden instead, not because Clinton wasn’t qualified, but because he knew that if Clinton were the VP, she could possibly overshadow him in the general election and that the story would be who should be at the top of the ticket. Biden removed all doubt as to who was the presidential candidate and who was the VP.
Don’t look now but Mitt Romney may have just lost the war for winning the battle. Only time will tell. As I said earlier, Ryan is bright, but he is also articulate, far more so than Romney. In his acceptance speech in Virginia, he did a better job of laying out the case for Mitt Romney in a few short minutes than Romney himself has done over the last twelve months. The Obama White House has their work cut out for them, that’s for sure.
If this is what elections are supposed to be about, then we are about to embark on a truly historic one.
T minus 87 days and counting.