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Mitt Romney’s Pick of Paul Ryan: Bold Doesn’t Always Work

Romney’s Ryan pick is meant to shake up the race, excite conservatives, rouse a jaded media, and save the day. But American politics is littered with bold and improbable decisions that didn’t work out well.
August 13, 2012 |
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Why did Mitt Romney choose Paul Ryan? Movies. In action movies, the climactic scene often goes something like this: The bad guys have captured the hero. He’s bound and gagged thousands of miles from civilization as the final minutes tick away until the detonation of the super-thermo-subatomic death ray that will kill both him and half of humanity. In desperation, he hatches a wildly improbable escape plan, mutters to himself, “This is just crazy enough to work,” and saves the planet.

In real life things rarely work out that way. In real life you rarely hear stories of people on the verge of bankruptcy who put their last remaining dollars on a 100-to-1 shot at the track and end up living happily ever after as a result. A big part of the reason people go to the movies, in fact, is to escape the unpleasant reality that in real life people in bad circumstances who hatch bold and improbable plans often ended up making things worse.

Which brings us to the Ryan pick. The argument that Romney needed to shake up the race makes sense. He was getting killed on Bain and tax returns; independents were deciding they didn’t much like him; right-wing bigmouths were starting to mutiny. Choosing Rob Portman or Tim Pawlenty wouldn’t have changed that storyline. To the contrary, it would have confirmed Romney’s image as cautious, dull, and perhaps even resigned to defeat.

The Ryan pick, by contrast, was guaranteed to excite conservatives. And it was likely to elicit a positive reception from the mainstream press too, at least initially, because the mainstream press is deeply biased against things it considers boring, which the Ryan selection is not.

But American politics is littered with bold and improbable decisions that don’t work out very well. Jimmy Carter’s decision to demand his entire cabinet’s resignation, seclude himself in the woods, and then deliver a speech decrying America’s spiritual collapse was bold. So was candidate Walter Mondale’s decision to declare that he’d raise taxes in 1984. Geraldine Ferraro was a bold vice-presidential pick; so was Dan Quayle; so was Sarah Palin. It was bold for Ronald Reagan to try to win over the Iranian regime by selling them weapons and then divert the money to Nicaragua’s contras. It was bold for Bill Clinton to put his wife in charge of health-care reform. It was bold when Al Gore invaded George W. Bush’s space in their third presidential debate. The Iraq War was very, very bold.

Not all high-risk political ventures fail, of course. (Obama’s strike against Osama bin Laden worked out pretty well.) But with this one, the chances of failure look pretty good. Mitt Romney has now tied his presidential fortunes to Paul Ryan’s budget plan. He may say he doesn’t endorse all the plan’s specifics, but as a matter of political reality, he already has. Politically, Ryan’s budget plan is what defines him. It’s why conservatives wanted him on the ticket. Now, some Republicans are saying that regardless of whether you agree with all the details in Ryan’s plan, what matters is that he’s put one forward while Obama hasn’t. But that’s too meta.

Voters aren’t going to reward Romney and Ryan for their boldness in putting forward a plan any more than they rewarded Mondale for his boldness in proposing to raise taxes. They’re going to decide whether they like what they know of the plan and in particular what they know of Ryan’s plans for Medicare.

In the last couple of days, conservatives have urged the Romney campaign not to duck the Medicare fight, but instead to act aggressively to turn it to their advantage. But the argument over cutting Medicare didn’t begin last Saturday. It’s been going on for decades, with Republicans almost always on the losing side.

Ideologues are forever convincing themselves that if only they can find aggressive and articulate spokespeople, they can convince the public to believe things it didn’t believe previously, but they’re usually wrong. Barack Obama, a fairly persuasive guy, couldn’t convince Americans to support closing Guantanamo Bay or paying higher energy bills to combat global warming. And the Romney-Ryan duo is unlikely to convince most Americans to support dramatically changing (and likely imperiling) Medicare because when it comes to Medicare, most Americans just don’t share the priorities of the Republican right.

The first big difference is this: what keeps Paul Ryan and his Tea Party backers awake at night is the nation’s debt. (This didn’t keep Ryan from backing that vast, unpaid-for new government program called the Iraq War, but that’s another column.) According to the Pew Research Center, 84 percent of Republicans call the reducing budget deficit a “top priority.” That’s only 6 points lower than the percentage who call “strengthening the nation’s economy” a top priority and 7 points higher than the percentage who assign top-priority status to “improving the job situation.” Among Republicans, in other words, America’s fiscal plight is as worrying as its economic plight, or at least they’re considered pretty much the same thing.

This helps explain the enthusiasm for Ryan, a guy more associated with rethinking budgets than creating jobs. The problem is that while swing voters also care about the budget deficit, they don’t care as much as Republicans. Among independents, according to Pew, “strengthening the economy” outpolls “reducing the budget deficit” by 22 points. “Improving the job situation” outpolls it by 19 points. The message is clear: While Republicans seem to assume that anything that cuts the deficit—even if it causes pain—is good for the economy, most other Americans don’t.

What’s more, even when it comes to cutting the deficit, most Americans don’t believe in doing it exclusively through tax cuts. According to Pew, in fact, even a majority of rank-and-file Republicans prefer cutting the deficit through both tax hikes and spending cuts than doing so through spending cuts alone. And when asked about Medicare spending, Americans want it to go up by a factor of more than 3 to 1. It’s not that most Americans could never stomach any cuts in, or changes to, Medicare, but given how much they value the program, they consider such changes a last resort. And they suspect that right-wing Republicans, given their ideological antipathy to federal domestic spending, consider such cuts a first resort instead.

It’s hard to blame Romney’s advisers for gambling on Ryan. Yes, turning the campaign into a referendum on Medicare cuts doesn’t bring the greatest odds of success. But if you believe Romney was on a losing trajectory already, what was there to lose? Except maybe the House and Senate.