WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney set up a stark choice for voters Saturday by picking Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate, resetting the campaign in fundamental and potentially risky ways.
After months of trying to make the contest a referendum on President Barack Obama’s handling of the economy, Romney raised the stakes for both sides. Setting aside a cautious ambiguity about his plans to tackle the nation’s fiscal challenges, he recast the race as an epic battle over budgetary and economic policy.
Ryan “understands the fiscal challenges facing America — our exploding deficits and crushing debt, and the fiscal catastrophe that awaits us if we don’t change course,” Romney told a cheering throng in Norfolk, Va., as he unveiled his pick.
Ryan is a dynamic seven-term policy wonk. As House Budget Committee chairman, his controversial “path to prosperity” has served for two years as a touchstone in the partisan wars over taxes and spending. He would curb taxes on business and wealthier individuals, impose austerity on most federal agencies, and transform Social Security and other entitlement programs that drive long-term national debt.
As partisans on both sides see it, putting Ryan on the ticket elevated the campaign debate — which has been increasingly negative and sometimes maddeningly trivial — by putting seminal choices over spending, tax policy and the role of government front and center.
“We won’t duck the tough issues, we will lead,” Ryan told the crowd at a rally in sight of the USS Wisconsin, namesake of his home state. “We won’t blame others, we will take responsibility.”
Ryan lends youth, conservative intellectual heft, and an insider’s knowledge of Washington. The downside for Romney is that he also brings fiscal prescriptions far more specific and controversial than the nominee’s. Democrats swung quickly, with Obama’s campaign calling Ryan “the architect of the radical Republican House budget.”
“There’s something odd about the fact that the ideas people are going to talk about have the vice president’s name on them,” said Joel Goldstein, a scholar of the vice presidency. He was hard-pressed to recall a running mate whose agenda so instantly redefined the nominee and the campaign.
But even with that, when the dust settles, the contest won’t hinge on the running mates.
“Whether Romney wins or loses isn’t going to be determined by how people feel about Ryan vs. Joe Biden,” Goldstein said.
Democrats have sought to tar Romney with the Ryan budget plan for months. But Romney had been careful to praise it without embracing its particulars — making it harder for detractors to define him and leaving conservatives frustrated at the apparent timidity.
Putting Ryan on the ticket cuts through the clutter. He can defend the policies.
“If they really play it right, Romney won’t actually say, ‘I believe everything Paul Ryan says,’” said William Lacy, a strategist on seven GOP presidential campaigns and director of the Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas, named for the party’s 1996 nominee. “He’ll say, ‘This is America’s best budget mind. … but I will be making the final decisions.’”
Democrats won’t let Romney off the hook if he tries to wriggle free from backlash against Ryan’s views, though.
Liberal economists have called Ryan’s budget “Robin Hood in reverse.” Obama has called it “thinly veiled social Darwinism.”
The plan, formally adopted twice by House Republicans, would end the traditional Medicare guarantee, handing to states the responsibility to provide a medical safety net for seniors in order to control costs, though critics say it would imperil access to care, too.
Democrats say the plan threatens current and future Social Security benefits, while shifting the tax burden away from the wealthiest Americans, Big Oil and corporations that send jobs overseas. And they appeared to relish the chance to use it as a bludgeon against Romney and candidates down the ballot.
“We wanted a national debate on this Ryan budget and Mitt Romney just gave it to us,” said Jesse Ferguson, national press secretary at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, adding that in every House district where he’s seen polls, the Ryan plan is “toxic.”
Although Ryan is well-known in policy circles, he’s never sought elected office beyond his own congressional district.
That makes him something of a blank slate — but certainly less than Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was four years ago when Sen. John McCain put her on the ticket.
Critics raced to fill in the blanks before the Romney side’s portrait has time to dry.
“The next few weeks are going to be pretty important in defining him,” said Goldstein, a law professor at St. Louis University.
Romney seems to have mollified the right wing of the party by picking Ryan, though Richard Viguerie, one of the movement’s intellectual godfathers, called the congressman “not the bold conservative leader or ‘boat rocker’ grassroots conservatives and tea partiers were hoping for.”
Even some Republicans voiced concern that Ryan’s budget proposal would drag the ticket down.
One of Ryan’s closest friends and allies in the House, Dallas Rep. Jeb Hensarling — the No. 4 GOP House leader — said Romney’s pick reflects well on where he would take the country. He called Ryan a “big idea guy, a “bold thinker” and “one of the smartest people in government today.”
“I’m ecstatic,” Hensarling said. “It’s huge for Paul personally, but it’s huge for the conservative movement.”
He was Ryan’s deputy on the Budget Committee, and they were colleagues on Obama’s commission to craft a bipartisan deficit reduction plan. They provided votes that scuttled the deal, which they said didn’t go far enough.
At 42, Ryan is among the youngest running mates in history. He has no executive branch experience and no foreign policy credentials to offer. But Hensarling shrugged off any concern that he’s not ready to step in as president, or is vulnerable to attack on those grounds.
“He is an intellectual tour de force,” Hensarling said. “There’s no member of Congress, Republican or Democrat, who knows the inner workings of the federal government and the federal budget better than Paul Ryan and has the ability to articulate them in a way that working people who don’t live and breathe politics can understand.”
Nominees for president often pick running-mates who can deliver a particular state or region or demographic.
Ryan brings a charisma and personal touch that sometimes fails Romney. But he’s unlikely to deliver any particular state. He could even put at risk the GOP’s hopes to win battlegrounds such as Florida, where the outsized bloc of seniors don’t take well to vast changes to Medicare and Social Security, even though they and those who will retire soon would be exempt from Ryan’s proposals.
Polls show that seniors 2-1 prefer the current Medicare system to the sort of “premium support” or voucher system Ryan advocates. But many seniors also are dismayed by explosive national debt and would find his passion for tackling that problem appealing.
Either way, Romney no longer gets the luxury of splitting hairs on his running mate’s agenda, because shunning even a portion of the plan would reinforce his reputation as wishy-washy and inconstant.
“He’s stuck with it,” said Trey Grayson, director of Harvard’s Institute of Politics. “You pick Ryan, you own the Ryan plan.”
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