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Mitt Romney has chosen a budget hawk, Paul Ryan, as his running mate. (Jeffrey Phelps/Associated Press)
Mitt Romney has chosen a budget hawk, Paul Ryan, as his running mate. (Jeffrey Phelps/Associated Press)

Lawrence Martin

History doesn’t bode well for the GOP’s latest pick Add to ...

Peculiar. The Republicans spent their primary campaigns pushing aside Tea Party types such as Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann in favour of Mitt Romney, someone who would have more appeal to moderate America.

Now moderate Mitt redefines himself by choosing bare-knuckled conservative Paul Ryan as his running mate.

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Maybe the turnabout will work. But if we look at history, we shouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t. The GOP is the party that can’t pick veeps. For more than a half century it has been making bad running-mate choices.

Start in 1952. That was the year Dwight Eisenhower put Richard Nixon on his ticket. Ike soon came to regret it, almost removing him from the post. The country would come to regret the rise of Nixon as well.

As president, Nixon chose as his No. 2 the inestimable Spiro Agnew. Faced with federal indictments, Agnew resigned in disgrace in 1973, pleading no contest to federal income tax evasion.

For his veep, George Herbert Walker Bush chose that remarkable stumblebum, Dan Quayle. As soon as the announcement was made, cries of “what are you thinking, George” went up.

Later came Bush Junior. He selected Dick Cheney, a.k.a. Darth Vader. Never satisfied with a secondary role, Mr. Cheney tried to run the show and the president. He pushed the country into Iraq, alleged torture and other debasements.

More recently was John McCain’s ill-considered choice of running mate in 2008. Like Mitt Romney, Mr. McCain enjoyed a somewhat moderate reputation. His selection of Sarah Palin did much to undermine that, as well as his candidacy.

Congressman Paul Ryan is different from the Agnews, Quayles and Palins. He has many strengths. He is brainy and dynamic and he has integrity. He is an effective retail politician. But he is the architect of a budget plan that is likely to scare off constituencies to which Republicans must appeal if they are to win. Right away, the Romney campaign was a bit on the defensive, putting out word that the Ryan priorities – slashing Medicaid, food stamps, housing assistance and other programs for the poor while outfitting the corporate and the wealthy with more tax breaks – won’t necessarily be the candidate’s. But it will be hard for Mr. Romney to own and disown Mr. Ryan at the same time.

Republicans are probably right in thinking the Ryan choice will help energize the party’s red-meat base and get out the vote. It will likely help the Democrats get out their base as well.

This presidential campaign brings to mind, especially with the Ryan addition, the campaign of 1980. With the economy in despair, the U.S. was in an alleged state of decline then as it is today. The Republicans were promising a new way. As their standard-bearer, they brought forward the Hollywood guy, Ronald Reagan.

At first we couldn’t take the Gipper seriously. He said very amusing things, his line about trees causing more pollution than automobiles being one example. Tell you what Dutch, a California newspaper responded. How about we put you in a car in an airtight garage with the motor running? We’ll put another guy in a room with a tree. See how it works out.

Of course it wasn’t long before Reagan was indeed taken seriously. Peanut farmer Jimmy Carter was no match for his charm, his simplicity, his promise of bold philosophical change.

With the Ryan pick, Mr. Romney is trying to cast today’s race in similar stark terms as 1980. A new morning in America. It will be a hard sell. Barack Obama is no Jimmy Carter. Mitt Romney is no Ronald Reagan. A veritable flip-flop machine, Mr. Romney has presented himself in so many guises no one is quite sure what to believe any more.

To be considered also is that while the type of conservative medicine favoured by Congressman Ryan found some success in the 1980s, it has found little favour since that time, particularly under George W. Bush. Today it is medicine that will likely make the Republican ticket an easier target.

 

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