Mitt Romney emerged as the Republican candidate for president since he was all the party had. The party vetted every alternative candidate, but he was the last man standing in a weak field.
Since then, Romney has lived down to expectations, refusing to release his tax records, publish specific plans to reduce the deficit or turn around the economy, or take a stand on any issue that might cost him a single vote. The former Massachusetts governor has been so cautious, so afraid of offending anyone, that he became a nonentity in the public’s mind. And President Barack Obama’s campaign has not wasted any time in portraying him as a secretive plutocrat, a man who stands for nothing except the ambition to be president.
In poll after poll, in swing state after swing state, Obama has maintained a slight but steady advantage. Unless Romney did something dramatic, he faced a long slog toward November, when he would watch his opponent win a second term.
Last weekend, Romney did something dramatic. He picked U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan as his vice-presidential running mate.
Ryan is an interesting, and potentially polarizing, choice. He hails from Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker broke the backs of the public unions and survived a recall effort. He came to Congress at the age of 28, pumped up by Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek economic theories. He has no record of corruption, spends most of his time in his home district, and has emerged as a standard bearer for the tea party faction in Congress.
In fact, Ryan gives Romney what Romney couldn’t summon the courage to give himself: an ideological backbone. As chairman of the House Budget Committee, Ryan pushed an aggressive plan to balance the budget that countered the one from Obama. Because Ryan offers specific, concrete proposals, in contrast to most Republicans’ juvenile hopes that saying no to Obama will substitute for mature governance, he has emerged as the closest thing to a serious thinker the Republican Party has.
But if Ryan has given Romney some substance to go along with that haircut, he has also given the Obama campaign a unique opportunity: a set of extreme ideas they can run against.
Take Ryan’s centerpiece plan for Medicare, for example. Under Ryan’s proposal, Medicare would no longer pay for seniors’ medical procedures as they are needed. Instead, seniors would get a lump sum of money, which they could pay into private or public insurance programs, using the free market to decide which plan works best for them.
Unfortunately, this lump sum would only grow as fast as the economy grows as a whole. Meanwhile, health care costs have skyrocketed past the economy’s annual growth and will continue to do so. Over time, senior citizens would get less and less money for their health care.
Ryan’s plan would slowly bleed money from one of the nation’s most beloved entitlement programs. Obama’s team knows this, and won’t be shy about pointing this out to voters in Florida and elsewhere.
Romney may have shored up his right-wing base by picking Ryan. But he also saddled himself with his greatest fear: specific ideas that millions of Americans might not like. Democrats probably won’t lose too much sleep with Ryan on their opponent’s ticket.