Four years after Sarah Palin’s break-out convention speech led to a spike in the polls that fizzled soon afterward, Paul Ryan had to prove that he is not just a precocious ideologue who knows how to fire up the Republican base. He needed to show broader appeal.
It made for a delicate balancing act as Mr. Ryan, the 42-year-old Wisconsin congressman chosen as Mitt Romney’s running mate, sought to convey both seriousness and sensitivity in a speech aimed at softening his image while satisfying his Tea Party disciples.
Remarkably, he seemed to pull it off. For the majority of voters who had not heard him give a speech, he appeared less menacing than the Robin Hood-in-reverse that Democrats have sought to portray since Mr. Romney named him to the ticket on Aug. 11. But he did not back away from the positions that have earned him hero status among conservatives.
He paid tribute to his mother. A widow at 50, she went back to school to earn a degree and start a business: “Her work gave her hope. It made our family proud. And to this day my mom is my role model.”
He joked about the generation gap between him and Mr. Romney, 65: “There are the songs on his iPod, which I’ve heard on the campaign bus – and on many hotel elevators.”
He bore witness to Mr. Romney’s moral rectitude: He “is prayerful and faithful and honourable … Not only a fine businessman, he’s a fine man, worthy of leading this optimistic and goodhearted country.”
He evoked the American Dream: “When I was waiting tables, washing dishes or mowing lawns for money, I never thought of myself as stuck in some station in life. I was on my own path, my own journey, an American journey, where I could think for myself, decide for myself, define happiness for myself … That’s freedom, and I’ll take it any day over the supervision and sanctimony of the central planners.”
He even channelled compassionate conservatism: “We have responsibilities, one to another. We do not each face the world alone. And the greatest of all responsibilities is that of the strong to protect the weak. The truest measure of any society is how it treats those who cannot defend or care for themselves.”
Mr. Ryan used the same speechwriter, Matthew Scully, who crafted Ms. Palin’s convention address. Mr. Ryan’s senior adviser, Toronto-bred Dan Senor, oversaw the process through several drafts. And the stakes were higher than four years ago.
Ms. Palin got to take the stage in 2008 with a clean slate, having been named to the ticket only two days before. No one outside Alaska knew who she was. Mr. Ryan came to Tampa under different circumstances. He needed no introduction to the Republican base and, in the three weeks since he joined the ticket, most of what other Americans have heard about him they do not like. Polls have shown him to be the least popular vice-presidential pick since George H.W. Bush chose Dan Quayle in 1988.
As chairman of the House of Representatives budget committee, Mr. Ryan has championed a radical plan to slash spending and taxes and reform Medicare, the federal health-insurance program for seniors. Under the plan, largely embraced by Mr. Romney, Americans who turn 65 in 2022 and beyond would get a fixed subsidy to buy insurance on their own. The Ryan plan – which calls for $6-trillion (U.S.) in spending cuts and $4-trillion worth of tax reductions over a decade – has fed into the Obama campaign’s depiction of the Republican ticket as peddlers of “trickle-down snake oil.”
The Obama campaign has seized on Mr. Ryan’s proposals to mount a powerful offensive aimed at seniors, accusing the Romney-Ryan ticket of seeking to end Medicare. But Mr. Ryan devoted a large chunk of his speech to challenging that. “In this election, on this issue, the usual posturing on the left isn’t going to work,” he said. “Our nation needs this debate. We want this debate. We will win this debate.”
Mr. Ryan accused Mr. Obama of shirking his responsibility for tackling the country’s fiscal time bomb and of depriving young Americans of hope.
Convention organizers inadvertently underscored Mr. Ryan’s lack of foreign policy credentials by scheduling speeches by Senator John McCain and former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice before him.
“Dictators in Iran and Syria butcher their people and threaten regional security. Russia and China prevent a response. And everyone asks: ‘Where does America stand?’ ” Ms. Rice said in a passionate speech that brought Republicans to their feet. “When friends or foes alike don’t know the answer to that question unambiguously and clearly, the world is likely to be a more dangerous and chaotic place.”
Ms. Rice might have stolen the spotlight from Mr. Ryan had this election campaign turned on national-security issues and foreign policy. But it does not. And by the end of his speech, Mr. Ryan may have moved a bit closer to persuading Americans he is in the right place at the right time.