In the long run, vice-presidential nominees can be assessed on their own performance. In the short run, they can be assessed only by what their selection reveals about the presidential nominee. George W. Bush’s choice of elder statesman Dick Cheney in 2000 showed Bush’s desire to project his readiness to govern. John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin in 2008 revealed his intention to separate himself from the Republican establishment. Mitt Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan indicates that Romney, whose plans for the White House often seem vague, wants to run as a true economic conservative.
That makes the Ryan pick a clarifying moment for Romney and for the entire presidential race.
Ryan, the 42-year-old chairman of the House Budget Committee, is Congress’s leader in carving out spending cuts; his budget plan anticipates reductions in a wide swath of social programs and entitlements. Romney, who had previously endorsed the Ryan budget in a broad way, will now have to own its specifics, and be prepared to defend them.
This marriage of Romney to the House GOP leadership will help unify the Republican Party and give Romney a clear message. It could also unify the Democratic Party and give it a clear target. And there would be nothing unsavory or out-of-bounds about Democrats contrasting President Obama’s vision of “investments” in health care, education, and infrastructure with Romney-Ryan’s plans to scale back government.
Romney should feel proud of this pick, because it points to a more principled, less strategic campaign. Many Republicans had worried that choosing Ohio Senator Rob Portman or former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, the recent favorites for VP, would have served to highlight Romney’s caution and opaqueness; a Romney-
Portman or Romney-Pawlenty ticket would have essentially offered a generic alternative for voters fed up with Obama. But recent polls have suggested that Romney can’t prevail on anti-Obama sentiment alone. He has to offer a clearer alternative.
The Ryan budget represents a true alternative, but one that should be fodder for debate. Obama has spoken about the importance of a “balanced approach” to the nation’s fiscal woes, combining long-term spending cuts with the elimination of tax loopholes and the termination of the Bush tax cuts for family earnings above $250,000. Romney and Ryan have vowed to solve the nation’s fiscal problems through spending cuts alone, even if they impinge on some entitlements and sharply limit the federal role in other areas, while cutting taxes further.
It’s a clear choice, and one that voters should approach with diligence and skepticism.