Any day now, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney will announce his handpicked vice president. While the media isn’t outright hysterical over the coming decision as of yet, expect the hype to build with each passing day now that we’re in August. Just like every other presidential election cycle, this “veepstakes” has received far too much attention. Hundreds of columns have flooded newspapers and magazines nationwide with dead-sure predictions of who Romney will select. Television pundits solemnly state that the vice presidential choice will have enormous ramifications for the race.
Yes, there’s no doubt that the quadrennial veepstakes is overhyped. When it’s time to pull the lever in early November, few people will ultimately vote based off of the bottom half of the ticket. Just about everyone makes their choice based on the presidential nominee. This has led some wizened political sages to disregard the vice presidential selection entirely.
While I understand their disinterest, I don’t share it. In my view, vice presidential nominees serve as both an add-on to the candidate and a sort of super-surrogate. It’s the vice president’s job to shore up the candidate’s weaknesses while promoting the campaign’s primary message. In this way, an effective vice president can strengthen the candidate while a bumbling one will do just the opposite. So, although hardly anyone will cast their vote for the vice president,many will vote because of the vice president.
Today, I want to take a look at Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI), who is one possibility to be Romney’s right-hand man in the White House. As a side note, I’m uncertain whether or not to turn this into a series on the “veepstakes” contestants, so this might be my only post on the subject. Much depends on when Romney actually makes his choice.
In evaluating Ryan, I’m going to provide a list of strengths and weaknesses, followed by my thoughts and a final grade. There’s a great deal of disagreement over the most important criteria for a potential vice president, and I don’t presume to know which to prioritize and which to downplay. So, the strengths/weaknesses will be in no particular order.
Let’s the 2012 Veepstakes begin!
Representative Paul Ryan
- Popular with both regular Republicans and the Tea Party, could unify the conservative base
- Makes his traditionally Democratic home state of Wisconsin a legitimate toss-up
- Solid rapport with Mitt Romney; endorsed him during the primaries before a Romney win was certain
- National profile with a comfortable familiarity dealing with the media, who respects him
- Beltway insider with the knowledge and connections to make a Romney presidency effective
- Excellent fundraiser
- Articulates the campaign’s economic message better than Romney; could beat Vice President Joe Biden in a debate
- Adds likeability to the Republican ticket
- Smart, skillful politician and policy wonk who appears capable of being President is disaster struck
- Exciting straight-talker on the stump
- Wouldn’t be a “demographic” pick as a white male (although he is young enough that he could appeal to the youth vote)
- Doesn’t add anything in terms of foreign policy chops
- Would be a loss in terms of conservative leadership in the House
- Budget proposals, particularly entitlement reform, provide a lot of ammunition for Democratic attack ads
- Mormon/Catholic ticket might not appeal to some evangelical Protestants
- Could overshadow Romney like Sarah Palin did to John McCain in 2008
Of all of Mitt Romney’s possible vice presidential picks, I believe Paul Ryan would be the strongest. Now, that’s not to say that I think he’s the most likely (Rob Portman and Tim Pawlenty remain the odds-on favorites), but I do think that he would be the best choice.
Ryan’s strengths are obvious and many. Romney desperately wants to make this election solely a referendum on the economy, and no selection would be more effective in turning the conversation to economic matters than Ryan. On a personal level, Ryan strengthens the ticket without presenting any obvious liabilities. With Romney likely to lose at least one major swing-state, stealing Wisconsin might be necessary to ultimately win. The two men work together well, and Ryan would mask many of Romney’s weaknesses as a candidate.
But what about Ryan’s weaknesses? While they do exist, I don’t consider any of them deal-breakers. Some have clamored for a woman or a minority vice presidential nominee in order to “round out the ticket” in terms of demographic appeal, but I don’t see that as likely or necessary. Romney is an extremely risk-averse candidate and he won’t want to give the media an opening to call his pick a “gimmick” or “the next Sarah Palin.” Unfortunately, that rules out the possibility of nearly every possible “demographic” pick, regardless of their merit.
Ryan’s weakness on foreign policy is noteworthy, but I expect few to make their choice in November based off of foreign policy. Many on the right don’t want to see Ryan leave the House, as they consider him an essential conservative voice there, but I think that this concern is overblown. The House has plenty of strong conservatives who could very well step up in Ryan’s absence.
Perhaps the biggest liability Ryan brings to the ticket is his various budget proposals. While they showcase his strong leadership on government spending and the debt, Democrats have used the proposals as fodder for vicious attack ads for years. They claim that the entitlement reform will “destroy” programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. However, since the Obama campaign is already painting Romney as a “conservative extremist,” I don’t believe that selecting Ryan would truly exacerbate the problem. Besides, Romney has endorsed the Ryan budgets, so he’s already vulnerable to those kinds of attacks.
Although some have worried that combining Ryan’s Catholicism to Romney’s Mormonism would alienate Protestant voters and especially evangelicals, I honestly don’t see it. Religion hasn’t played a significant role in this race, and I don’t expect it to. Finally, although Ryan would theoretically overshadow Romney as a more likeable, dynamic, and eloquent politician, Ryan also has enough political savvy to avoid doing so. Indeed, such a pick by Romney would likely broadcast a real sense of confidence from the candidate in his own political abilities.
As I said earlier, I don’t expect Mitt Romney to select Paul Ryan to be his running mate. However, I do think that he should.
Note: Ben Domenech’s writings on Twitter this morning provided both the inspiration for this post and the impetus to take the idea of “Vice President Paul Ryan” seriously.
UPDATE: On August 11th, 2012, Mitt Romney selected Paul Ryan to be his vice president. Wow. Romney’s infamously risk-averse campaign finally took a risk, but I think it’s a smart and safe one coming at the right time. For swing-state watchers, I would now put Wisconsin into the “leans Dem/toss-up” category.