Sunday, August 12, 2012

Who is Rep. Paul Ryan and What Does His Selection Mean?

Vice Presidential candidates generally don't decide general elections.  Some of the most widely panned Vice Presidential selections have still resulted in candidates being elected, Spiro Agnew and Dan Quayle being obvious examples.  Many great Vice Presidential picks have failed to life tickets, including the original compassionate conservative, Jack Kemp in 1996 being an obvious example.

Vice Presidential candidates who don't win become forgotten in history.  Does anyone remember who Adali Stevenson's running mates were in 1952 and 1956?  Let's try an easier one - do you remember who Gerald Ford ran with in 1976?  The answers, for the curious, are John Sparkman, Estes Kafauver and Bob Dole, two names you probably don't even know and one that you know only because he was a Presidential candidate 20 years later.

So, to reinforce what I've often said, I find it highly unlikely that the selection of Rep. Paul Ryan (WI) as Mitt Romney's running mate will make or break the election either way.  He is unlikely to torpedo and otherwise winning ticket and he is unlikely to bolster an otherwise faltering ticket in a meaningful way.

But Vice Presidential picks do reveal a lot about the Presidential candidates, as they are the first governing choice that they will make.

In 1980, we learned that Ronald Reagan, in spite of lofty rhetoric, was at heart a pragmatist, understanding that he needed to surround himself with smart people who knew more about areas like foreign policy, than he did.  George Herbert Walker Bush had been a bitter primary rival and was very much at odds with Reagan's economic policy, but Reagan knew a good executor when he saw one.

In 1988, we learned that George Herbert Walker Bush wanted nothing so much as to appease the right wing of the party.  Everyone realized Dan Quayle wasn't the best qualified candidate for the job, but Bush had fences to mend with conservatives.

In 1992, we learned that Bill Clinton prized an intellectual equal and wanted to be surrounded by very bright people.  It was also an indication that Clinton, a classic Center-Left Democrat, might have a little more left in him than center.

In 2000, we learned that George W. Bush prized loyalty immensely and wanted to be around people he was comfortable with, a theme we saw throughout his administration, where he frequently surrounded himself with people who had been with him his whole career.

In 2008, we learned that Barack Obama wanted to "first do no harm", picking a clearly qualified Veep who was uncontroversial and unlikely to get him trouble (frequent gaffes aside.)  We also learned that Obama didn't like being told what to do, roundly rejecting the easy choice of Hillary Clinton to forge his own path.

So what do we learn about Mitt Romney in 2012?

First, we learn that he is first and foremost, going to run an economic and budgetary campaign.  This comes as no surprise as economics are front and center in the national concern and Romney has always showed something between disdain and discomfort discussing social policy.  Secondly, we learn that Romney behaves in his hiring decisions like a CEO - he needs an economic and budgetary plan, so he hires the smartest young economic thinker in the GOP.  We also learn from a political standpoint that Romney is far more interested in running a base turnout election than a swing-voter election - Ryan energizes economic conservatives and tea party-types but does little with moderate voters and opens Romney up to all kinds of attacks about Ryan's plans for Medicare and Medicaid.

Paul Ryan would not have been my first choice if I were a political adviser to Romney.  Bobby Jindal would have been a solid conservative (appease the base), experienced governor (buttresses Romney's executive experience argument) and a non-overshadowing force in the campaign.  Paul Ryan does not bring governing experience - how can Romney argue business and governing experience is so critical when his 2nd choice for President doesn't have any?  Ryan may overshadow Romney as he is a much more respected thinker in the party.

But, apparently, CEO Romney is much more concerned with hiring the guy with the plan than what that guy will mean to the campaign.  And like I said, it probably won't decide the election, so Romney is probably well-advised to pick someone with whom he is comfortable.

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