Sunday, August 12, 2012

Parsing the Paul Ryan Veep Pick

I must say I was pretty surprised when I heard the news that Mitt Romney picked Paul Ryan to be his running mate. It's rare that members of the House get on the ticket, and there were a lot of safer choices for a candidate who always seems to take the safest option. At first I thought that Romney had massively blundered, since Ryan is a polarizing figure whose budget would mean massive cuts to popular programs such as Medicare. However, when taken in context of Romney's overall strategy, the pick makes a lot of sense. So far the Romney campaign (and Republican party generally) has stuck to the following four-pronged strategy:

  • Attack the president on the weak economy without offering specific proposals that can be counter-attacked
  • Energize the conservative base and get them to the polls 
  • Keep the Democratic base from getting optimal turnout through voter suppression campaigns in swing states
  • Rely on massive, unlimited donations from friendly plutocrats to super-PACs that will push all kinds of propaganda and misinformation to sway uninformed voters in the middle and alienate others so much from the political process that they tune out and don't vote
Romney is not really trying to reach a broad electorate or to appeal to the middle by emphasizing his moderate policies as governor of Massachusetts.  He is following the blueprint of the 2010 by-election, when Republicans won by stirring up the Tea Party's church and king mob and getting more warm bodies to the polling station than the other side.  Nominating a conservative hero like Ryan is obviously intended to get that base to the polls and dispell doubts about Romney among hyper-conservatives.  Unlike Sarah Palin and Dan Quayle, Ryan will not say or do the kinds of idiotic things that can give the man at the top of the ticket major headaches.  He is a smooth operator, and despite proposing the destruction of the social safety net, has inexplicably received fawning media coverage.

The Ryan pick also helps the Romney campaign's finances.  Of all of the possible veep candidates, I am willing to bet that Ryan is the one that would do the most to get the money flowing from the Koch brothers and their ilk to the super-PACs.  In the wake of the infamous Citizens United decision, the unofficial branch of political campaigns holds the real power, and Ryan's radically ideological, Ayn Rand inspired vision for the country makes these purported John Galts jizz in their Brooks Brothers suits.

Those are all of the upsides for Mitt.  The downside, however, is rather glaring.  Romney has labored mightily since winning the nomination to not have any real position on the issues, hoping to make the election a referendum on the president and the economy.  With Ryan at his side, he appears to endorse a radically conservative and unpopular budget policy, making a big, fat target for the Obama campaign.  Romney, with Etch-a-Sketch at the ready, has already distanced himself from the Ryan plan, which is ridiculously irresolute even by his two-faced standards.

Time will tell whether the advantages of the Ryan pick will eventually outweigh the considerable risk.  I only hope that this means that this election really is a repeat of 1996, when Bob Dole made Jack Kemp, a supply-side hero, his running mate in order to get conservative votes.  In both cases the Democratic incumbent came into the White House with a friendly Congress voted out of office in a conservative wave election.  Both incumbents faced an insanely obstructionist Republican Congress.  Both were much more likeable than their opponents who lacked the common touch.  If the current economy was doing as well as it was in 1996, this election would be a complete blowout.  In this much closer election, I fear that the decision to mobilize the base rather than playing to the middle might just actually work.

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