The selection of ultra-conservative Congressional Representative Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney's running mate is a gamble. Its not the high-risk maverick move of John McCain in picking Sarah Palin, but is a far more risky choice than is typical, and reveals the Romney campaign need to change the dynamic of a race that looks headed for defeat.
The cynical choice was Senator Rob Portman.
Ohio is currently consistently leaning Obama by a few points, and no Republican has ever won the Presidency without the electoral votes from that state. VP nominees cannot guarantee their own state, but they typically add a few points to the home state total. In a tight race in Ohio, a home-town candidate would likely move the state to leaning Romney, leaving the campaign free to spend more of their budget in other crucial states like Virginia, Colorado and Florida.
The safe choice was Tim Pawlenty. Nothing clears out the dirty laundry like running for your party's nomination, and Pawlenty was one of the few candidates to emerge viable for national office without implosion or scandal.
Pawlenty had survived with a solid reputation, working class credentials and a dull but safe reputation. His failure to launch in the primaries meant he was never subjected to negative attacks from his opponents.
There were more audacious choices. Personally, I thought Mike Huckabee would have brought both a safe vetted choice and a boost to turnout while helping to offset some of Romney's elitist negatives. Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey is a similar populist figure with the vetting that comes from the "kill or be killed" political culture of the garden state. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida was a Palin-esque high risk, high reward candidate who held the promise of Hispanic voters in swing states like Colorado and Florida.
Instead, the Ryan pick is a strategic choice made by a campaign that needs to redefine the election around the economy or lose.
This isn't about winning Wisconsin, a mid-sized moderately swing state. It is fairly solidly in Mr. Obama's camp and the additional of a local House of Representatives member is unlikely to give the 5 per cent-plus boost to the Republicans needed to switch it on its own.
Ryan has some appeal to the Republican base, and as he gets better known he will help drive up conservative turnout.
But the goal here is to make the budget and the economy the centre piece of the campaign and make the case for a conservative refashioning of the American dream.
The Romney team hope to polarize the next couple weeks around Ryan's budget plan of cuts to key social programs and tax reforms. Democrats are appalled by this approach and congressional leaders will be unable to keep themselves from campaigning against something their held constituencies would reject. The belief is that the more recent, watered down version of the Ryan plan can play well in Republican states, among donors and – if the 2010 midterms can be believed – independent voters.
A debate on the fiscal situation should help Romney. The United States budget is an unmitigated disaster, and that should reflect on the incumbent. The existing budget plan, an assembly of shotgun cuts to a variety of large budget items, is hardly popular in contrast or superior in economic theory. Both are blunt sledgehammers divorced from judgment that fail to actually balance the books. Both would deflate an already teetering US economy. The Ryan plan – particularly the original 2008 version – differs most for its harsh treatment of seniors, the poor and the aspirational.
The Democrats will be sorely tempted to focus on elements of the budget plan most offensive to their own core constituencies, rather than swing voters or potential non-voters.
Which illuminates the question of why. Paul Ryan is nominated for Vice President to bait the bear. Romney hopes Democrats and their surrogates and advocates will react hysterically, pulling President Obama into a debate on the finery of budget making where he must balance politics and his own record of compromise. In that terrain any Republican has an immediate electoral advantage.
The Republican fiscal argument is economic hogwash but compelling communications: cutting government programs will stimulate the economy and free job creators to expand employment.
In truth, the Ryan plan would likely push the US into a second recession as government economic activity collapsed and Americans sank far more of their earnings into self-financed retirement benefits to replace the public Medicare plan. Deficit financed tax cuts might create some stimulus, but not in time to counter act the layoffs and contraction in spending.
The tax plan provides some welcome simplification of the system, but fails to address the largest loopholes in the tax system like mortgage interest deductibility and various tax shelters.
Perhaps most tellingly, it doesn't actually balance the budget. Under Rep. Ryan's plan, that won't happen until 2040.
But it is a plan, one that has been sold with modest success of late, and in an era when Americans are once again believing the end is high, any plan may be something.
The challenge for Romney is this: he has been selling this story of Obama's economic failure for three years. Essentially every American voters has heard it. And he's still trailing.
If the election were held today, it is difficult to see how Romney could win. With President Obama leading well in every state John Kerry had in 2004, plus New Mexico and Nevada, the Democrat has only got to win ONE of Florida, Virginia, Ohio and the combination of Iowa and Colorado to take the election. Romney has to win all of those battlefield states.
Romney needs to change the channel to a new line of attack and shake up the race. He has five major chances to control the agenda in this campaign:
- Foreign Policy Trip
- VP Pick
- Republican Convention
- Closing Argument
The Foreign Policy trip was a failure. While his remarks on Palestinians may have energized a few base voters, the unforced error on the London Olympics made him look like an amateur. Foreign policy arguments about treatment of America's allies may work with the base, but Romney lost the chance to make a foreign policy argument to independent voters when Osama bin Laden was killed.
Now the VP pick is a clear attempt to force a debate on the economy, as a fiscal issue. If the economy question can be redefined away from jobs and toward the budget in the coming days, Romney may be able to gain the crucial votes he needs in those key states.
Romney can point to gridlock in Washington and the failure to address the budget and say "give me the Presidency and I can fix that."
But Ryan holds danger as much as opportunity.
He has no real foreign policy experience, despite spending his career in Washington.
His original budget plan in 2008 included radical cuts to programs to seniors that even the Tea Party has stepped away from of late.
He is a member of Congress, an institution held in contempt by most Americans.
He was instrumental in the near debt default last year and the gridlock that is paralyzing decision making in Washington.
Most importantly, he has never run for a national office or large state-level role. He has been vetted by the Romney campaign, but not by the media and general public. There could be a howling factoid or unexposed scandal bubbling, and almost certainly something strange or odd will come out in the next few days.
This week will be crucial.
If the Republicans can drive a message that they have a plan to keep American great, and the leadership to execute it, they may be able to redefine the race as Reagan did in the closing days of the 1980 campaign.
But if the next week is about Paul Ryan not paying taxes for his nanny, another of Romney's opportunities will be lost and the cold hard mathematics of the Electoral College will be that much closer to an Obama victory.