Mitt Romney’s Buckeye brushback: Will Paul Ryan lose Ohio for the GOP?

A specter is haunting Ohio: the specter of John W. Bricker.

Sixty-eight years ago, the Republican presidential nominee picked Bricker, the Ohio governor and future senator, as his running mate. The choice is the likely reason why Thomas E. Dewey defeated Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Buckeye State by 12,000 votes–a margin of 0.37 percent.

As I traveled through central Ohio last week–before Mitt Romney chose Paul Ryan for his ticket–I heard a constant refrain that Rob Portman, the Republican senator from Ohio, could provide Romney with the margin of victory in the state in November.

And it wasn’t just from Republicans like Rep. Pat Tiberi (who would have been a leading contender to fill Portman’s Senate seat had he won). “Sen. Portman on the ticket would help tremendously in southwestern Ohio, where he's from,” Tiberi said. “That is the Republican bastion of the state, and that's where he would help, I think, drive up support for the Romney ticket.”

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That was also the view of Joe Hallett, the lead political writer for the Columbus Dispatch, and a 30-year veteran of Ohio campaigns. Hallett thought a Portman nod would appeal to “Ohio pride.” So convinced was he that, after Romney went with Ryan, Hallett wrote that in shunning the Bricker example, “Romney might have blown his best chance to win the most crucial state in the election.”

But if Ryan left some Ohioans disappointed–along with Rubio fans in Florida, McDonnell devotees in Virginia and New Christie Minstrels in New Jersey–it was a gambit that reflected a very sound political judgment on the part of Romney: From the Republican perspective, a debate on broad principles of government is far superior to a debate over Mitt Romney.

Whatever the assets of a Portman (or a Tim Pawlenty), they are political figures whose governing philosophy is vague at best. Such a choice would not have helped to frame the campaign conversation around the philosophy of government: its purpose, scope and limits. It would have kept the focus squarely on Romney the man, because trying to discover his core set of principles brings to mind Gertrude Stein’s famous observation about Oakland: “When you get there, there’s no there there.”

In the absence of clear principles, the same annoying questions about Romney would have remained front and center: the offshore accounts, the taxes, the “who-is-this-guy?” mantra. They are questions his supporters insist are distractions from President Barack Obama’s record–which is exactly the point.

No election is ever just a "referendum” or “choice.” They are always both. And no challenger can bank on discontent with an incumbent unless that challenger can put doubts about his values and character to rest.

In this sense, Romney has already succeeded, at least temporarily, by triggering a spate of “game change,” “reset” and “new ballgame” stories that have swept aside the questions over his taxes, foreign bank accounts and policy twists worthy of an Olympic gold medal. Never mind that Etch A Sketch metaphor used by a top Romney adviser; this shift in focus is more like an instant remaking of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The conservative commentariat, previously dubious of Romney, now appears to believe he has ingested not just Ryan’s worldview, but those of Hayek, von Mises, Nock and Rand (at least the non-atheist part).

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For most observers, the question seems to be whether voters will reject Ryan’s vision of government that has now been surgically grafted onto the Romney campaign. Will seniors run screaming from a vision of health insurance vouchers? Will the inevitable slashing of programs prove too draconian?

My question is different: I wonder how long it will be before the focus of attention shifts back to Mitt Romney.

As a general proposition, campaigns do not linger on the vice presidential nominee. When they have, it’s always meant very bad news for the ticket. Think of Spiro Agnew’s foot-in-mouth disease; Tom Eagleton’s medical history; the real estate holdings of Geraldine Ferraro’s husband; the unbearable lightness of Dan Quayle; Sarah Palin’s reading list. There is no evidence that Paul Ryan would find himself the center of such unwelcome attention.

There is also no evidence that the ideas of a running mate have ever commanded center stage. More important, there is no evidence over the last six years of campaigning that Mitt Romney is eager to have a conversation with the electorate about what he believes, and what he intends to do with the power of the presidency.

That means that as the autumn leaves begin to fall, those questions about Mitt Romney the man may well begin to rise again. And he may find himself thinking wistfully about John W. Bricker.