WASHINGTON: Mitt Romney set up a stark choice for voters Saturday by picking U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., as his running mate on the Republican ticket, resetting the campaign in fundamental and potentially risky ways.
After months of trying to make the contest a referendum on President Barack Obama’s handling of the economy, Romney raised the stakes for both sides. Setting aside a cautious ambiguity about his plans to tackle the nation’s fiscal challenges, he recast the race as an epic battle over budgetary and economic policy.
Ryan “understands the fiscal challenges facing America — our exploding deficits and crushing debt, and the fiscal catastrophe that awaits us if we don’t change course,” Romney told a cheering throng in Norfolk, Va., as he unveiled his pick.
The 42-year-old House Budget Committee chairman’s “path to prosperity” has become a touchstone in the partisan wars over taxes and spending. He would curb taxes on business and wealthier individuals, impose austerity on most federal agencies, and transform Social Security and other entitlement programs that drive long-term national debt.
Policy debate heightened
As partisans on both sides see it, putting Ryan on the ticket elevated the campaign debate — which has been increasingly negative and sometimes maddeningly trivial — by putting seminal choices over spending, tax policy and the role of government front and center.
“We won’t duck the tough issues. We will lead,” Ryan told the crowd at a rally in sight of the USS Wisconsin. “We won’t blame others. We will take responsibility.”
Ryan lends youth, conservative intellectual heft, and an insider’s knowledge of Washington to the campaign. The downside is that Ryan also brings fiscal prescriptions far more specific and controversial than Romney’s.
Democrats swung quickly, with Obama’s campaign calling Ryan “the architect of the radical Republican House budget.”
“There’s something odd about the fact that the ideas people are going to talk about have the vice president’s name on them,” said Joel Goldstein, a scholar of the vice presidency. He was hard-pressed to recall a running mate whose agenda so instantly redefined the nominee and campaign.
Democrats have sought to tar Romney with the Ryan budget plan for months. But Romney had been careful to praise it without embracing its particulars — making it harder for detractors to define him and leaving conservatives frustrated at the apparent timidity.
Putting Ryan on the ticket cuts through the clutter. He can defend the policies.
“If they really play it right, Romney won’t actually say, ‘I believe everything Paul Ryan says,’ ” said William Lacy, a strategist on seven GOP presidential campaigns and director of the Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. “He’ll say, ‘This is America’s best budget mind. ... but I will be making the final decisions.’ ”
Democrats won’t let Romney off the hook if he tries to wriggle free from backlash against Ryan’s views, though.
Liberal economists have called Ryan’s budget “Robin Hood in reverse.” Obama has called it “thinly veiled social Darwinism.”
The plan, formally adopted twice by House Republicans, would end the traditional Medicare guarantee, handing to states the responsibility to provide a medical safety net for the elderly in order to control costs, though critics say it would imperil access to care, too.
Nearly a blank slate
Although Ryan is well-known in policy circles, he has never sought elected office beyond his own congressional district.
That makes him something of a blank slate — but certainly less than Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was four years ago when Sen. John McCain put her on the ticket.
Romney seems to have mollified the right wing of the party by picking Ryan, though Richard Viguerie, one of the movement’s intellectual godfathers, called the congressman “not the bold conservative leader or ‘boat rocker’ grass-roots conservatives and tea partiers were hoping for.”
One of Ryan’s closest friends and allies in the House, Dallas Rep. Jeb Hensarling — the No. 4 GOP House leader — said Romney’s pick reflects well on where he would take the country. He called Ryan a “big idea guy,” a “bold thinker” and “one of the smartest people in government today.”
Ryan is among the youngest running mates in history. He has no executive branch experience and no foreign policy credentials to offer. But Hensarling shrugged off any concern that he’s not ready to step in as president, or is vulnerable to attack on those grounds.
“He is an intellectual tour de force,” Hensarling said.