Paul Ryan, Romney’s earnest opposite

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In 1996, bedeviled by conservative doubts about his tax-cutting credentials, Bob Dole named Jack Kemp -- the fervent champion of free-market economics – as his running mate. Sixteen years later, confronting lingering right-wing skepticism about his conservative pedigree, Mitt Romney picked Paul Ryan – a former Kemp speechwriter – as his vice-presidential nominee.

Romney played against type in his surprise selection of the youthful seven-term Wisconsin congressman, who was considered a long-shot until the last few days. Rather than choosing a make-no-waves running mate like Ohio Sen. Rob Portman or former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Romney opted for a free-market ideologue over a political man for all seasons.

The veep choice is probably the best pre-election preview of how Romney would govern from the Oval Office. By going with Ryan -- whose well-publicized budget proposals put both traditional Medicare and Social Security in the cross-hairs – Romney is signaling that he can change direction with stunning speed. Instead of a predictable recite-America-the-Beautiful campaign designed to make Barack Obama the issue, Romney has added policy heft and controversy to his I-can-create-jobs bromides.

Introducing Ryan in Norfolk on Saturday morning, Romney called him “the next president of the United States.” (Obama made an analogous slip-up in 2008.) While it would take a Freudian to unpack what Romney meant subconsciously, it is safe to say that Ryan would provide the domestic agenda for Romney as the next president of the United States.

To Democrats, Paul Ryan is both literally and metaphorically two four-letter words. The Ryan budget, which passed the House in 2011 with only four dissenting Republican votes, would gradually turn Medicare into a voucher program and slash state funding for Medicaid. Although it is not in the House-passed plan, Ryan has also been a passionate advocate of private accounts for Social Security. The Romney-Ryan ticket is now on record as advocating the largest downsizing of popular federal programs since the ill-fated 1964 Barry Goldwater crusade.

What we still don’t have is an entirely reliable account of how and when Romney arrived at Ryan. Was he always the stealth favorite or was there a last-minute shift within the Mitt inner sanctum? The inside story will have to wait until the full how-a-great-man-makes-a-decision deliberate leaks from inside the Romney camp and, maybe, until the books published after the campaign.

The timing matters because there could be another less charitable interpretation of the route to Ryan – Romney can be rolled. In the last few days, both the Wall Street Journal editorial page and the Weekly Standard enthusiastically endorsed Ryan for vice president. The New York Times captured the conservative mood with a Thursday headline: “Romney Faces Pressure from Right to Put Ryan on Ticket.”

Since early indications are that Romney decided on Ryan in the last 10 days, that pressure may have arrived as a seismic shock in Romney headquarters. If Romney actually abandoned Portman or Pawlenty to placate the GOP base, it suggests that he would govern by always nervously looking over his right shoulder.

Critics have sniffed that Ryan lacks the foreign-policy pedigree that Romney as a former governor needs. But, with the exception of Portman’s short stint as George W. Bush’s trade czar, the same can be said of all the apparent GOP finalists. At least Ryan offers nearly 14 years of congressional experience, which is more than you can say about current and former governors like Pawlenty, Bobby Jindal and Chris Christie. And, by the way, the last ticket totally devoid of Washington credentials was the one nominated by the Republicans in 1948. And somehow, I suspect, Romney does not want to emulate Tom Dewey in grabbing defeat out of the jaws of victory.

Ryan is, in many ways, the antithesis of Romney. The 42-year-old congressman from Janesville has spent virtually his entire career in the public sector or in the think tank arena. Ryan has been a consistent true believer while Romney has -- to put it charitably -- followed a zigzag course. 

Back in 1998, during the Bill Clinton impeachment election, I came to Janesville to cover a hotly contested House race for an open seat featuring a 28-year-old wunderkind Republican named (what a coincidence) Paul Ryan. I recall the fledging candidate walking me around downtown Janesville to show the houses and the historical markers that trace his family’s influence on this small industrial city since the late nineteenth century.

But what stays with me was the earnestness and policy-oriented seriousness of Ryan, even then. When I asked him about Clinton’s conduct, he avoided the fire-breathing rhetoric that was a GOP staple that year and instead said softly, "I think the wrong way to go is to go down a partisan, bitter route." What he wanted to talk about was tax cutting and Jack Kemp with a dollop of Ayn Rand thrown in. When I suggested that his election over Democrat Lydia Spottswood would be interpreted as an endorsement of the Republican impeachment strategy, he replied, "I hope it isn't written that way. I hope it's interpreted that my ideas are better than hers.”

Despite the nearly three decades that separate them in age, Joe Biden and Paul Ryan embody the political principle that it is far better in career terms to reach Congress as a young man than someone more seasoned. (Biden was not yet 30 when he was elected to the Senate in 1972). For all their conflicting styles and ideologies, both vice-presidential candidates exude an enthusiasm for politics, the press and policy debates that Obama and Romney somehow lack.

In a recent interview with Ryan Lizza for a New Yorker profile, Ryan expressed his scorn for presidential candidates who “run on vague platitudes and generalities.” With his bold vice-presidential pick, Romney has embraced the a-choice-not-an-echo theory of presidential politics.

If nothing else, putting Paul Ryan on the ticket guarantees that the Oct. 11 vice-presidential debate will be destination television viewing. And however the politics sort themselves out, the 2012 presidential election has suddenly become interesting as well as merely important.