Now we know.
For months the two biggest unknowns in American politics have been what Mitt Romney really would do as president and whom the former Massachusetts governor would choose as his running mate. Now, with one appearance Saturday in front of a retired battleship in the critical swing state of Virginia, we know the answer to both questions.
In selecting one of the young rebels of the new Republican right, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, as his vice-presidential nominee, Mr. Romney has indicated that rather than repudiate or mollify the Tea Party movement that has roiled American politics, he believes these conservative rebels are onto something – that their energy and passion, once harnessed, could fuel his journey to the White House.
Mr. Romney, moreover, has signalled that he intends a campaign, and perhaps later a presidential administration, with a strong conservative coloration and without the courteous bows to convention that mainstream Republicans have made for two generations, when they played the role of “dime-store New Dealers” in upholding the principles of a liberal, interventionist state under Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman and then supplied the crucial votes required for some of the signature civil-rights measures of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
Mr. Romney’s decision sends his career, his party, and his rivals on entirely new paths, inconceivable when the onetime captain of private equity started on his first presidential campaign four years ago and unlikely as he began his march to the nomination this year.
Throughout the political season, Democrats despairing about the prospects for President Barack Obama’s re-election have harboured the same fantasy that Republicans secretly regarded as their greatest nightmare, that Mr. Romney would behave as president much the way he did as a moderate governor, when he approved a health-care bill that is eerily similar to the one that Mr. Obama proposed – and that did not attract a single Republican vote.
All that is over.
Mr. Ryan is four things Mr. Romney is not: young, Catholic, culturally Midwestern, devoutly conservative. Though Mr. Romney was reared in Michigan, the son of a revered Republican governor, his two Harvard degrees and his two New England homes mark him as a north-easterner and his gubernatorial record marked him as no conservative.
Now it is clear that Mr. Romney plans no tack to the centre and that he believes mobilizing conservatives in November is far more important than wooing centrists.
He intends a campaign that will stress conservative themes and, in inviting Mr. Ryan onto the ticket, has indicated that the old Washington notion of getting along by going along has gone the way of the Rambler, the automobile that made Mr. Romney’s father, a onetime CEO of American Motors Corp., famous and rich.
“There are a lot of people in the other party who might disagree with Paul Ryan,” Mr. Romney said in introducing his running mate. “I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t respect his character.”
Both statements are incontestable, which was not the case four years ago when Sen. John McCain, using much the same formula as Mr. Romney but without the care and background checks, selected then-Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his young and conservative running mate. But that first sentence, underlining Mr. Ryan’s abiding differences with Democrats, is a signal that the American campaign will not only be emotional but also ideological.
The 2010 budget that Mr. Ryan proposed as House Budget Committee chairman strikes at the heart of Democratic orthodoxy: the inviolability of entitlement programs, especially Medicare, the health insurance program for the elderly. Not since 1964, when Barry Goldwater questioned Social Security, the American retirement supplement, has a member of a national ticket so questioned one of the cornerstones of American political and economic life.
That’s why the selection of Mr. Ryan is such a signal moment. With one decision, Mr. Romney has adumbrated many possible decisions, and changed the course of campaign and country.