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Romney's pick of Paul Ryan: Let the debate over substance begin

The presidential race has so far been shamefully dismissive of substance. With his pick of  House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate, Republican Mitt Romney presents voters with a clear choice over the role of government and how to pay for it.

By Kurt Shillinger / August 11, 2012

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, right, and vice presidential candidate Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan are joined by Ryan's daughter Liza while campaigning Aug. 11 in Norfolk, Va. Op-ed contributor Kurt Shillinger writes: 'For all the talk about how the bottom half of a presidential ticket doesn’t matter, the fact is it does.'

Mary Altaffer/AP

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St. Louis

Regardless of the outcome in November, it may be possible to look back to Republican Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate today as the moment when the 2012 presidential election was salvaged.

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This race so far has been shamefully dismissive of substance – with more focus on Ann Romney’s horse and President Obama’s birth certificate than jobs and scorching drought across the Midwest.

Now the contest provides a stark and perhaps conclusive choice in a debate that has gridlocked Congress at a critical moment: the role of government and how to pay for it. It’s time to have it out on this question enough to spur action in one direction or the other.

Mr. Romney’s choice is a bold move, and for that reason risky as well. As a congressman, Mr. Ryan represents one small district in Wisconsin. As House Budget Committee chairman, he is a leader in one of the most dysfunctional and least popular Congresses in history. His presence on the ticket is unlikely to shift the electoral college in any of the big battleground states where Romney has been losing ground in recent weeks. He adds no foreign policy depth at a time when wars in Afghanistan and Syria and Iran’s nuclear ambitions will require the next administration’s immediate attention.

But for all the talk about how the bottom half of a presidential ticket doesn’t matter, the fact is it does. The choice provides a first insight into how a presidential nominee makes decisions, where his priorities lie, how he will handle competing party interests, and how he might govern. Under Vice Presidents Al Gore, Dick Cheney, and Joe Biden, the office has grown in both influence and policymaking.

As a vice presidential candidate, Sen. Biden shored up Barack Obama’s lack of foreign policy. For Romney, who has offered a long list of ambitious policy promises without clearly explaining how he would achieve them, Ryan brings details. In an administration, Romney would have in Ryan a wonkish, genial, and energetic legislative liaison.

Ryan’s plan is well-defined: Cut spending, reduce taxes, and rein in America’s runaway entitlement programs. That gives Team Obama a bigger target, but it gives Romney more substance than he has provided thus far. The Ryan agenda is now the Romney agenda, and as last year’s debt-ceiling showdown revealed, the Obama administration and House Republicans face off across a wide gulf.

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