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Saturday, August 11, 2012

Paul Ryan: the pick?!

A few quick thoughts on the possible choice of Paul Ryan, which just days ago I dismissed as an absolute impossibility.  At the time, I assumed Romney was only considering him out of respect for the Koch Brothers, who are very fond of him.   But because a Ryan pick seemed so fraught with risk, I didn't actually believe it possible.

Although today Sarah Palin is considered a major reason for John McCain's defeat in 2008, we forget how much of an impact she made in the week or two following her appearance in the spotlight.  She absolutely energized the base and was a media sensation.  By the time both conventions were over, McCain was ahead, due in no small part to her presence on the ticket.

Ryan, no doubt, will energize the base, but he's energizing a portion of the GOP that needs little energizing: economic conservatives, Wall Street types, and billionaires who are all for reducing social spending while eliminating income taxes on billionaires. Yes, they are paying the advertising bills, but Romney already had their vote.

Ryan is actually less experienced than Sarah Palin, who, after all, had some administrative experience.  He only been  in the House of Representatives for a few years and no administrative or foreign policy experience. It is true that Barack Obama didn't have administrative or foreign policy experience. But as a candidate, he was sui generis.  By the end of a heated primary campaign and especially during the financial crisis, voters did come to the judgment that he had the right temperament for the job of Commander-in-Chief.  Does anyone actually believe that Paul Ryan would make a credible president if, for example, Mitt Romney were impeached for tax evasion?  Is he really ready for the intense spotlight of a presidential contest where his tax plan isn't the only issue? Is he even ready for one where his tax plain is the issue?

So a few thoughts, few of which are greatly original given all the memes that have exploded in the Twitterverse during the three hours since the news was leaked.

1. Mitt Romney, as a human being, is the weakest presidential candidate since George H. W. Bush in 1988. Romney's willingness to say whatever he needs to say, whether or not he believes it, is well known.  However, one had to believe that once he had cemented his position as the nominee, he would give voters a sign of who he really was.

But the long promised Sister Souljah moment never came.  Romney is utterly terrified of the Tea Party and the religious right; this was the one presidential decision he had to make before the election, and what it showed is that he will never become his own man.  Remember, it wasn't George W. Bush who appointed Clarence Thomas. It was Bush's daddy.  A conservative with weak character is even more likely to get us involved in unnecessary wars, appoint unqualified justices, and bust the budget than a strong one.

2. The money people, i.e. the Koch Brothers and Adelman, will be in a position to dictate policy far more than we realized.  Romney's embrace of the Ryan budget is news in and of itself, since it should put to rest the notion that he's a fiscal moderate in any way.  But the Ryan pick has even worse implications for Middle Eastern policy.  For if Romney does what the Koch Brothers ask of him on domestic policy, how will he advance the Adelson agenda in foreign affairs?  A Romney victory may well mean that a war against Iran will be the first order of business after Inauguration Day. I was not willing to believe that until today. But now that we know just how weak Romney's character is, all bets are off.

3. Older white Americans are against government spending, despite the fact that they are the biggest non-defense related drain on the nation's resources. This was illustrated in a staggering USA Today piece published last week:

Two-thirds of seniors say the government is trying to do too much that would be better left to businesses and individuals; about one in four say the government is doing too little to solve the country's problems. Among those younger than 30, the divide is much closer, 52%-47%, between those who say the government is doing too much or too little.
The Romney people, presumably, think that Ryan pick will be a wash; they'll lose a few, but they'll gain a few of the budget hawks. Maybe that's true. But by doubling down on the Ryan budget plan, he has given Democrats a major opening with seniors. That is not a risk the Romney campaign should necessarily take, for, unlike the Obama campaign, it has no route to victory without Florida. And Ryan isn't just out to take away Granny's Medicare. He opposed the DREAM Act too, which is hardly going to go over well with Florida's burgeoning non-Cuban, non-Puerto Rican Hispanic population.

4. If this election is a referendum on Obama, it is by no means clear that Obama can win.  His approval rating is in the high 40's.  Romney is not greatly loved by Republicans. But the party base hates Obama far more than it likes Romney. Romney used this fact to tremendous advantage during the GOP primaries, when he was able to get fairly large numbers of Southern racists to vote for him by simply insulting Obama repeatedly.  Insulting Obama, consorting with Donald Trump, the Joe Arpaio connections -- these are all coded messages to the 40% of the party that is outright racist: "I am one of you." A Republican needs those votes, and the appeals to them, going back to Nixon's Southern strategy, were ratified by Ronald Reagan's visit to Philadelphia Mississippi, Bush 41's Willie Horton ad, and Bush 43's visit to a university where interracial dating was banned.

But Romney has done the unexpected. Rather than consolidating the party base by spewing and coddling Obama hatred that serves as a proxy for racism, he has doubled down on right wing economic orthodoxy.  It seems to me that was strategically unnecessary: he would have been able to hold his party base without the need for a heavily ideological VP pick--the anti-Obama vote is motivated, and will turn out either way. Even for Mitt Romney.  Why would you go for a choice election when your best chance to win was a referendum election?

5. It could be argued that this sop to the right gives Romney the freedom to move to the center on economic issues--in short to once again make it a referendum rather than a choice.  But how can he when he has ratified the most right wing economic plan that's out there, the Ryan Plan?  

6. Are there other counterarguments? Absolutely. It could be argued that Romney made an ideological pick that shows his idealism and commitment to getting rid of the budget deficit.  And even though few serious economists think that it would (or that it is sensible policy), the chattering classes have been successfully trained to believe that a depression causing negative-stimulus shock to the economy is somehow an example of serious policy thinking.  It could be argued that Ryan's youth shows that Romney is willing to take risks.  But few will believe that Ryan passes the Commander-in-Chief test.  Sarah Palin was a sitting governor; the dog she was compared to was a pit bull, not a poodle or puppy.

7. What states does Ryan bring to the table?  He might cement a state that needed little cementing, Missouri. Surely not Wisconsin, which is looking increasingly safe for Obama.  He could certainly help in Iowa, a state that I do not believe the President will carry in 2012 unless he wins the popular vote by at least 3 points overall.  He could solidify the Republican base in Ohio and help in Michigan. Right now, the President is safely ahead in both of those states, partly because he's probably about  2-5 points ahead nationally; that could change, If this ends up being a turnout election rather than one that is decided by independents, and if there is a sudden downturn in either state, Ryan's presence could help.  But how much is that worth, if the price for a victory in Ohio is Florida?

The bottom line is that, strategically, this choice is a head-scratcher, so much so that I'm still not ready to believe that Ryan is indeed the pick.  This is a defensive, base-mobilizing move that, as I've noted, Romney did not need to make (what would the right have thought of an Obama-Kucinich ticket?).  But what we have learned from this choice is that Romney's character issue is far, far deeper than even those of us who follow politics closely had realized.  He is so desperate to be President that he is willing to be a tool of forces that are far beyond his control: religious extremists, economic extremists, the Tea Party, Koch Brothers, and Sheldon Adelson. A weak-willed empty suit played by this set of puppeteers, Romney could be worse than either Bush, as dangerous a political candidate as we've seen in the last half century. 

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