Mitt Romney’s selection of Representative Paul Ryan as his running mate is an exceptional decision. Every running mate contender came with his advantages and disadvantages. Portman was safe, from Ohio, and focused on the economy; but was also exceedingly boring and could be tied back to the spending of the Bush administration. Pawlenty could not be tied to Bush, but comes off as nothing more than the most amiable hockey-dad in Midwestern politics. Rubio is Hispanic, young, from Florida, and hugely popular with the Tea Party and the conservative base; but he is untested, has not been on the national stage very long, and lacks executive or congressional leadership experience.
Ryan is often called a lightening rod, both for liberal criticism and conservative praise. He spent little time in the private sector before entering professional politics, but possesses a knowledge of economics and economic policy found nowhere else in the nation’s legislature. Ryan enjoys the ability to turn wonky policies and complex CBO analysis into easily understandable material that everyone in the swing district he has represented for 14 years can understand.
Republicans unhappy with Ryan’s selection as Romney’s running mate are concerned that Ryan (and his policy proposals) will attract too much negative attention when Romney should be turning the electorate’s focus solely towards Obama. Ryan is known for his Roadmap for America’s Future, a refreshingly bold reform package addressing America’s spending and entitlement problems. Romney endorsed the Roadmap many months ago and tied himself to both Ryan and his budget and reform proposals. The “play it safe” crowd is working under the logic – if the election is a referendum on Obama, Romney wins, so keep the focus on the president. The problem is that that strategy has not been paying off. Romney is slipping slightly in national polls, and if the election were held today Obama would likely secure a second term. This election will be a referendum on the president — national elections always are — but Romney could not win the White House with only a “first (and only), do no harm” strategy. Additionally, since Romney was already closely tied with Ryan, any attacks the Democrats had planned were already going to happen. If Romney had chosen Portman or Rubio, does anyone really think that Democrats would say “Oh well, I guess we can’t attack Romney on entitlements or spending any more”? If Romney was going to have to deal with all of the negatives of Paul Ryan and his budget anyway, why not chose Ryan and gain all of the advantages he brings to the table?
The selection of Ryan demonstrates that Romney is not solely focused on disparaging the past four years, but about moving forward, offering alternatives, and creating a solutions-based vision for the future. Ryan will jazz up the base, thrill the intellectual right, and, as one would suspect, serve the best defender of the Roadmap, which Romney has already been touting.
From an electoral college map standpoint, after the ousting of former Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold in 2010 and Scott Walker beating back the recall, Wisconsin is a blue state the GOP can pick up. Ryan’s selection makes winning Wisconsin that much more likely. Ryan can also help in Ohio given his blue-collar, Midwestern roots. Ohio is a state no Republican president has ever won the White House without, and since Rob Portman only has a 33% approval rating back home, Ryan might help as much if not more in the Buckeye state.
For many voters, running mate selection is about the type of person chosen and why he was chosen rather than the running mate himself. Ryan was chosen as an intellectual heavyweight, a reformer, and someone who has put forth specific solutions to America’s problems and clear alternatives from the policies being currently followed. That is what the American people will see in Paul Ryan as a running mate. Add that to his ability to energize the base, explain complex problems in a way that anyone can understand, and the youth and desperately-needed vigor he brings to the ticket. Paul Ryan is exactly the running mate Romney needs.
Garrett Jacobs | University of North Carolina | @GarrettMJacobs