That all changed Saturday, when Mitt Romney picked as his vice presidential running mate US Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, a key Obama sparring partner on the Hill who had been one of two possible candidates with majority support among tea partyers, according to a Tea Party Express survey of 17,000 people.
While other candidates – including Sens. Rand Paul and Marco Rubio – may have been more identifiable as the avant-garde of the antitax protest movement, the selection of Mr. Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, shows Mr. Romney’s overtures to the same fiscal conservatives who sought a “Not Romney” in the primaries were not ploys. At the same time, the pick is a big gamble on whether the American people are really ready for a substantive debate about conservative reform of Washington.
“The Ryan pick gives the tea party a seat at the table, and that’s why I’m so encouraged,” Mr. Olson says. “I’m surprised and very, very much encouraged. Just when I thought Romney was stale, he goes and does something like this.”
To many tea party conservatives, Ryan is a near-perfect pick: While good on the stump, he won’t overshadow Romney himself. But he gives Romney a sounding board for the party’s more conservative ideas, while bringing extensive budget experience to the ticket – and putting focus on the fact that the federal government has now gone 1,200 days without a budget as the national debt has ticked up above $15 trillion.
Moreover, Ryan’s budget ideas are likely to become the meat of campaign policy debates, causing Bill Kristol and Stephen Hayes at the conservative Weekly Standard to quip, “If Ryan’s budget is going to be a central part of the debate over the next three months, who better to explain and defend it than Paul Ryan?”
Ryan, who has little business experience outside of Washington, was heavily influenced by the literary work of Ayn Rand, whose criticisms of collectivism have framed the larger opposition to President Obama for many tea party activists.
Ryan’s push for massive reforms to entitlement programs and for tax cuts has earned him grudging respect across the aisle as well, although Democrats are sure to paint his ideas as tax cuts for wealthy people to the detriment of the poor – the so-called “Romney Hood” meme.
A central prong of that criticism is likely to be Ryan’s suggested reforms to Medicare, an issue that could be huge in the battleground state of retiree-heavy Florida. The Obama campaign has suggested that Ryan’s plan to turn Medicare into a “premium support” program to help seniors pay for private health insurance won’t keep pace with medical costs, meaning that some 3.4 million Florida seniors could see service cuts. Democrats have already depicted Ryan in one ad as pushing an old woman off a cliff.
Ryan’s point is that Medicare as is exists is not sustainable, and growing numbers of seniors are already buying voucher-like supplemental insurance to cover Medicare expenses. He has also softened his plan to allow for a more traditional option for seniors over 55.
According to Olson, Ryan will actually help Romney in Florida, if seniors – and even tea party activists who don’t want to see Medicare gutted – can be convinced that the plan is intended to maintain, and perhaps improve, current Medicare benefits.
“The Ryan plan would save Medicare, and when he gets on the national stage to articulate his views, I honestly believe that he’s going to turn the Democrats upside down on their head,” says Olson. “[Romney and Ryan] are pushing for this fight.”
A big part of the tea party movement is about infusing greater personal responsibility into the body politic. Ryan has proven adept at that intellectual debate, as well, quoting everyone from Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn to John Locke in the preamble to his first budget plan.
“We won’t duck the tough issues … we will lead!” Ryan said in his first speech after being tapped by Romney, in Norfolk, Va., on Saturday. “We won’t blame others … we will take responsibility! We won’t replace our founding principles … we will reapply them!”
The Ryan pick is likely to create a rift among Republicans, criticized chiefly by those who preferred a cautious approach (Tim Pawlenty comes to mind) over the “Go bold!” approach. If Ryan ends up coming across as wonky and intellectual as he outlines budget plans, the Obama campaign could succeed in painting the Republicans as out of touch with most Americans.
But with the Ryan pick, it’s clear that Romney is hoping voters will be paying closer attention and itching for a substantive debate over the future of the country, much like the one the tea party has attempted to promote by helping engineer the dramatic Republican takeover of the House in 2010.
Picking Ryan “would be to ensure a choice election and offer Romney the prospect of a mandate for a conservative reform agenda,” write Jonathan Martin, Maggie Haberman, and Jake Sherman in Politico, ahead of Romney’s announcement.
But for at least some in the tea party movement, Romney’s decision to pick Ryan as his running mate suggested for the first time that the would-be Republican president has fully embraced the party’s energized right wing.
“In my opinion, there were only two people that could’ve saved Romney and bought him credibility with the tea party and the grass roots, and that was either Paul Ryan or Marco Rubio,” says Olson. “I don’t think it will only bring him Wisconsin, but will play well in [the battleground states of] Ohio and Florida, as well, because he is grass-roots and blue-collar, and that’s what he represents.”