JANESVILLE, Wis.-- Mitt Romney has made his first presidential-level decision, picking Paul Ryan, the 42-year-old, seven-term Congressman from southern Wisconsin, as his running mate. The choice offers the first real hints about what kind of president Romney will be. Here's what we learned: He takes risks, he can adapt, and he's willing to campaign on a bold set of ideas rather than generalities. If you're looking for the attributes of presidential leadership, these are all strong qualities. The Ryan pick also tells us less flattering things about Romney: He's willing to discard what were once deeply held views about the necessity of business and executive experience and to cosset the GOP base for political reasons at the expense of independents.
Thanks to the endless coverage this campaign of gaffes and out-of-context quotes, it had seemed like we were going to have a donut election: fluffy, sugary, and with nothing in the middle. The stakes for voters have always been high, but the way the campaign has played out has not matched the claims by both candidates that this is the most important election of a generation. Romney has had plans he could point to, but he wasn't really running on them. Now he's put a greater emphasis on those plans. They are no longer in the background, which means this election will be a clearer choice for voters. It will touch on the central question of how you refashion government in a time of scarcity and when a majority of the public is scared, thinking the country is headed in the wrong direction.
The Ryan pick is thrilling. That's a first for Romney's campaign. Throughout the primaries, a segment of conservatives were lukewarm about him. Since then, in countless interviews with activists, strategists and voters, it has been clear that Republicans are voting more against Obama than for Mitt Romney. Now conservatives have something to vote for. Paul Ryan is a revered figure in conservative circles. He is a conservative evangelist for the free market and lower taxes, and he doesn't apologize. Ryan, along with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walter, is loud and proud--willing to be specific and controversial despite the political heat.
(Watch Romney and Ryan's remarks at the VP announcement.)
Mitt Romney has never been considered in the same mold. Over the last few months, there has been an influential chorus of Republicans--joined by Walker--calling for Romney not only to get specific about conservative solutions but to campaign on them. To run merely as the anti-Obama alternative was not enough, argued people like Ryan-backer Bill Kristol. Romney had to present a set of alternative ideas and champion them. Others, like Mitch Daniels, argued that only by campaigning with brio could Romney win a mandate for governing.
By picking Ryan, Romney has staked his campaign on fundamentally restructuring the government and its relationship to the people who fund it. Ryan has called for the privatization of Social Security and transforming Medicare from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan. The seven-term congressman has pushed these ideas for years, pointing to his continued success in a contested state and in a district that Barack Obama won in 2008 as proof that conservatives could be true to their beliefs and survive politically.
As a conservative ideas man, Ryan is well ahead of most others in his party not just in his level of specificity but in his willingness to stand behind his ideas. But in 2010, Republican leaders didn't embrace Ryan's "roadmap," knowing that it would be too controversial, particularly the change to Medicare. House Republicans were running against Democrats by arguing that Democrats were destroying Medicare, something that would have been hard to do while also championing the Ryan plan, which would have opened them to the same charge. Those ideas are now so central to the party's chances of winning back the White House that they have won Ryan a spot on the ticket.
(Watch Romney flub Ryan's introduction.)
Ryan is loved by conservatives, but he makes moderate Republicans nervous. "We've switched the campaign from being about jobs and Obama's bad record to one about Paul Ryan's Medicare plans," said one Republican strategist, echoing the sentiment of several I interviewed. The Romney team argues that swing state independent voters will see the new policy focus as a road out of their current economic woes. Some Republican strategists think it's a gift to the Obama campaign.
That's because one of the Obama teams' goals has long been to tie Romney to Ryan and his budget proposals. They also wanted this election to be a choice, not a referendum on Obama. When both the campaign and the challenger have the same goals it suggests that one of them really has it very wrong.
Ryan is not a complement to Mitt Romney. He's an injection of energy, like Sarah Palin was for John McCain or Jack Kemp was for Bob Dole. He is telegenic and enjoys sparring with those who doubt him, which are important skills. He's also a possible ambassador to middle class and Rust Belt voters in the way that Joe Biden has been for president Obama. That might put a state like Wisconsin, which was trending toward Obama, back in play. When Mitt Romney talked about his vice presidential pick before it was announced, he said, in an interview with NBC, that he wanted a candidate who had "a vision for the country that adds something to the political discourse about the direction of the country." Sounds good, but the president is the one who is supposed to have the vision. In this case though, the No. 2 has the vision and instincts that Romney doesn't. It's why so many wanted Ryan to run for president. To be fair, Romney is certainly capable of articulating a vision. That's what he did with his health care plan in Massachusetts. But he is reluctant to boast about those achievements.
Perhaps Romney can take a vision graft from Ryan. He'll have to, because voters won't be lured by Ryan's ideas unless the man at the top of the ticket makes the case for them. But for all of the talk of a new emphasis on policy specifics, this is still going to be a campaign deeply connected to American values. When Ryan spoke on Saturday, he talked about the threat Obama poses to the American way of life. Underneath every policy debate will be the argument that when tough choices have to be made about the federal government, you're going to want candidates who share your values when they're doing the awful math of scarcity.
The Romney choice represents a significant adaptation from the plan that the campaign had been running before, which relied mostly on keeping the campaign focused on Barack Obama's record. By picking Ryan, who comes with a very detailed set of ideas and proposals, Romney has embraced the view that he needs to run a campaign that offers bright alternatives to Obama's vision. Even the Romney bus sends this message. It has been redesigned on the outside to read "The Romney Plan."
Every president needs to know how to stick to a plan against all advice to the contrary, but perhaps even more important is that they know when to adapt. Romney has been slipping in the polls against Obama. The Real Clear Politics average has him down four points. Voters have a more unfavorable view of him than they do a favorable one, according to a variety of polls. By picking Ryan, Romney has a chance to redefine himself in a way that might relaunch the brand. But unlike the Sarah Palin pick or Bob Dole's pick of Jack Kemp, this is not an odd couple. It is a rebranding that is mostly consistent with Romney's general approach.
There is one big way in which Ryan is not in the Romney mold: He lacks executive experience. Romney has repeatedly said this shortcoming makes politicians from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama to Rick Santorum unqualified for office. It was the talking point for those who have endorsed Romney, particularly N.J. Gov. Chris Christie: "Let's be very leery, very wary of sending another member of Congress to the White House. Now, see, members of Congress, they can be OK, but they don't know the first thing most of the time about using executive authority. They don't know the first thing about getting things done." Ryan also has no real business experience, a quality that Romney has said should be a qualification for office.
Romney is running an attribute campaign: His argument is that his skills and experience are particularly suited to the White House. Given that, it's no small thing to then throw away the key attribute when selecting your vice president.
In picking a running mate, Romney has said the first criteria is that he needs to be able to step into the job. Either he doesn't mean that or his previous emphasis on the necessity of executive experience was meaningless. It is a time-honored tradition to revise the criteria you set before you picked your vice president to fit the person you actually do pick. It makes the sale harder, though, for a candidate like Romney who has a reputation for ideological malleability.
To get around this, the Romney campaign has sold Ryan as the Washington counterpoint to Romney's leadership skills. "I believe my record of getting things done in Congress will be a very helpful complement to Gov. Romney's executive and private sector success outside Washington," Ryan said at the announcement. This is a new criteria for Romney's vice presidential pick, but it's also one that will require some scrutiny. Is Ryan really the bipartisan deal-maker he claims? He didn't sign on to the Simpson-Bowles, even though a strong conservative like Sen. Tom Coburn was able to in the name of bipartisanship. And he has not been a willing partner with Obama, despite Obama's early view that he could work with Ryan. Liberals cite Obama's appreciation for Ryan as one of his foolish early moves: mistaking an ideologue for someone who actually wanted to exchange ideas.
Romney will now test the proposition at the heart of all of the good advice he was getting from conservatives: Whether specificity kills or whether the country is really hungering for a detailed plan. Until this point, Romney has been almost allergic to specifics. Now he will have to give nuanced, precise, and powerful answers. He's going to have to flip a switch, which might not be that easy given how hyper-careful he has been to this point. His aides have long said that Romney loves policy details. He'll get a chance to prove it now.