Paul Ryan Wins No Matter What
I’m going to admit political blogger defeat: I’ve turned this Romney/Ryan ticket around and held it up to the light, and I just don’t see the play. Some commentators have said he reinvigorates Romney’s campaign, but I don’t see that beyond the conservative base, any gains from which will be cancelled out by the chunk of independent voters who are turned off by Ryan’s “kill the poor” budget proposals. The best case scenario, electoral vote-wise, is Ryan puts a couple of midwestern states in play, especially Wisconsin; that his presence makes Florida Obama’s to lose seems to considerably outweigh that possibility. I give up: I literally can’t imagine what was said when Romney sat down with his advisors and decided Ryan would help them get to 270.
There’s an alternative reading here, which is that the Romney campaign just ceded defeat. They’re slipping in the polls despite a small increase in the unemployment rate; if they can’t beat Obama with 8.3% unemployment, and can’t offer a single substantive proposal of their own, they’re cooked. At this point, the campaign is in make-it-look-good mode. Adding Portman or Daniels or Pawlenty to the ticket would have been pouring weak sauce on a weak dish, impressing nobody and making the Romney effort seem wimpy and tepid from start to finish.
With Ryan, to mix metaphors, they go down swinging. I don’t think Ryan makes Romney any more likely to be in the White House on January 20, but he sure makes the fight to get there a lot more ideologically satisfying to the right. What good does that do Romney? It makes him look better going down; it also does a lot to keep him in good graces with the GOP. If there’s been one consistent thing about Mitt Romney, from his first campaign to this last one, it’s been the (R) after his name; though that designation meant wildly different things at different times, Mitt Romney has always done what he’s needed to in order to make the cause happy. Sometimes that meant winning the executive branch of a blue state; sometimes, as in 2008, that meant knowing when to quit. Now, it means taking his destined-to-lose campaign and refurbishing it as the strongest voicing yet of the right’s still-fringe economic policy.
That’s where Ryan comes in. Ryan, despite being the heartthrob of the Weekly Standard and WSJ set, champions a long-term budget proposal that Newt Gingrich rightly called radical. Newt was pilloried for the characterization, but he was simply speaking the position of the average GOP legislator. Congressmen in vulnerable districts ran from Ryan in the halls. As my (somewhat superficial) study of poll numbers over the course of the last year showed, Ryan’s Path to Prosperity was responsible for ending the GOP’s modest, tea-party fueled 2011 rise. The poor-man’s (literally) austerity politics of the tea party were given quite a wide berth by the electorate for a while, but even the tea party knew to stop at the door of Medicare; in fact, the tea party gained momentum from anger over Obamacare, which was wrongly purported to cut Medicare. When Paul Ryan took the austerity mantle and ran it past that threshold, the nation recoiled: there were limits to what voters were willing to tolerate when it came to slashing government services, and Ryan crossed that line. The Democrats immediately used this to win a special election, and the GOP’s favorability numbers never recovered.
Ryan released a second budget this year, mostly to crickets. For all his own star has risen as a result of his willingness to push uncomfortable policies (or so the narrative goes), those policies have not actually risen along with him.
That’s about to change. Barring a full-throated attack on the underlying economic arguments of Ryan’s budget—the type that would require a stronger labor movement that’s not withholding money from the Democratic Party, and a bolder Obama campaign that, at this point, is happy to run Bain outsourcing ads and call it a day—I don’t see the battle we’re about to have as epochal. There will be debates over austerity v. stimulus, and the insanity of Ryan’s budget (which does not, repeat, NOT come anywhere close to reducing the deficit), and all in all, the country will get a more nuanced argument over economic policy than it got in 2006 or 2008 or 2010. But this isn’t going to be “Capitalism: Yay or Nae?” I think come November 6, we’re still going to believe taxes are uniformly bad, find federal services noxious in the abstract but sacrosanct when they affect us, and think that the wealthy get away with too much but “punishing” them through tax reform is bad for the economy. Slightly more people might lean toward Obama’s reading of all this when the election is over, but I don’t see a single aspect of the American political consciousness being substantively altered.
What will be altered is the radicalness of Ryan’s budget policies; you can’t simultaneously be radical and on a ticket for the vice presidency. The budget that Ryan just released to a quietude will be given full amplification, and Republicans won’t be allowed to ignore it or run from it; they will have to align themselves at least in part with Ryan’s proposals, or explain why they won’t, at the risk of angering an RNC and a slew of Super PACs with lots of money to grant or deny. Ryan’s proposals won’t win the presidency, but his beliefs don’t necessarily want the presidency just yet; they want legitimacy. Two-plus months of his ability to sell them on a national stage, with a chorus of mainstream GOP legislators behind him, will give them that.
Even during austerity 2010-11 heyday, there was an element of amateur petulance to the whole thing, a sense that these upstarts were schoolchildren who had taken over the principal’s office. (Joe Walsh, anyone?) After Ryan is done campaigning, even if he loses, he will have officially removed the aura of immaturity from austerity, and the people who support it, which will prime it to be an even more potent force in 2016 and 2020, to say nothing of the midterm elections in which slightly more boutique ideas can dominate.
Remember, much of the rhetoric that has plagued Obama’s administration began in the later stages of the 2008 campaign, when Sarah Palin, freed by a limp campaign to mouth off at will, propagated the ideas of Obama as President of Otherstan, of socialism in liberal’s clothing, of “real America” versus the elites. Democrats howled at the time as she handed over the last chances of a McCain victory, but what Palin started in the late stages of that campaign, though it helped Obama win the presidency, significantly hobbled what he was able to do with it. Ideas, once loosed on a supersized stage like a national campaign, have to go somewhere. In 2009 and 2010, Sarah Palin’s loose invective found a home in the tea party, who used them to inflict incredible damage.
Similarly, there will be no putting back in the bottle what Paul Ryan is about to pour out. His ideas have nothing to lose from a national airing; if they convince even a tenth of the undecided voters who hear them, they will have added to their ranks, which will bolster Ryan’s opposition against a second Obama administration, making him even more the ideological steward of his party, which will reflect more respect onto his ideas, which will further propel him, and so on into 2014.
Mitt Romney’s probably going to lose. But Paul Ryan wins no matter what.
Counter: The obvious rebuttal to this argument is that the GOP follows Ryan so far to the right that it strands itself and has to hustle back to the center. James Fallows at the Atlantic talks to a poli sci professor who makes just this case:
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush must be very relieved that he has already made clear his alienation from the move farther right in the party on economic and social issues. The future of the party is almost certainly going to lie with governors who have had to deal with the actual problems of managing health, education and welfare systems in a country with growing number of senior citizens as well as growing numbers of minority voters and same-sex couples.
If President Obama wins, Democrats should give some credit to Walter Mondale for the honorable race he ran in 1984. After his defeat, no one could say it was the messenger not the message at fault. That defeat provided the impetus for governors like Bill Clinton to work with the Democratic Leadership Council to find new approaches to old issues and bridge racial and economic divides.
That’s a credible argument. I’d prefer it be true, over mine.