In joining Romney, will Paul Ryan get his 'clear choice' campaign?

Back in February, long before he got the vice presidential nod, Rep. Paul Ryan urged Mitt Romney to run an 'affirmative' campaign, laying out how he differs from Obama. Picking Ryan may signal Romney's intent to do just that.

Mary Altaffer/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (r.) and vice presidential running mate Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, greet the crowd during a campaign event at the Waukesha County Expo Center, Sunday, Aug. 12, in Waukesha, Wis.

In selecting Paul Ryan for the GOP ticket, Mitt Romney appears to agree with one of the Wisconsin congressman's long-standing beliefs: If you aim for sweeping changes, you must run a campaign that clearly states your case to the American people.

Back in February, for example, Representative Ryan recounted the story of listening to President George W. Bush, who had just been reelected, discuss plans for his second term. It had been a bitter campaign, one that Mr. Bush had won with a focus on national security issues.

Ryan recalled that he was shocked to hear Bush discuss privatizing Social Security and taking on tax reform. “That’s the first time I heard of that,” the Wisconsin Republican told reporters at a February Monitor breakfast, a bewildered look across his face.

“And I was [saying], ‘Yeah!’ ” he said, pumping his fist with the spine-tingling excitement that only he can muster about tax reform. “But it went nowhere.”

The lesson, according to Ryan? A campaign must articulate to voters the big changes it envisions making. That, of course, can be a risky move, especially when big changes involve political TNT like Medicare. But the new vice presidential hopeful nonetheless says he believes it best to be a proponent of laying out the good, the bad, and the ugly.

“We owe the country a very clear choice. The gridlock is as bad as its ever been. We need the American people to break it,” Ryan said back in February. “And what we owe them is that if we don’t like the direction the president has gone, and we don’t, we owe them an alternative.”

Reports indicate that Ryan and Mr. Romney are two wonky, data-driven peas in a presidential campaign pod. Romney once referred to Ryan, who is the same age as Romney’s oldest son, Tagg, as his “sixth son.” 

But long before Ryan joined the ticket, he and his fellow Cheese Head, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, offered this one significant challenge to Team Romney: Where’s your vision? 

“We simply can’t try to win this thing by default, by running against the bad news or the things that have contributed to the president’s unpopularity,” Ryan said back in February. “We owe the country more than that. We owe them an alternative, and if we win an affirming election like that, we have the moral authority and obligation to act on it.”

Both Governor Walker and Ryan praised Romney for making preliminary steps toward a bold vision. But Walker's assessment, made in June at a Monitor breakfast with reporters, was that Romney still hadn’t broken through. 

“I don’t know that voters are there yet with Governor Romney,” Walker said. “It doesn’t mean he hasn’t talked about it. It doesn’t mean he hasn’t thought about it. But I think he’s got to have a simple message of not only why we need to replace the current occupant in the White House, but also why he would be better.”

The fundamental difference between Paul Ryan and GOP governors (or former governors) Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and Bob McDonnell of Virginia or senators such as Rob Portman of Ohio, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire is simple: Ryan has actually outlined a budget plan.

Romney, of course, has an economic plan of his own. He could have done more to distill it (59 points? really?) and picked any of those other candidates to try to gain an advantage that is electoral (Senator Portman in Ohio, Governor McDonnell in Virginia) or demographic (Senator Rubio with Hispanics, Senator Ayotte with women).

But Ryan’s plan is different from Romney’s. The House of Representatives has approved it, and it has been through the ringer of being scored by the Congressional Budget Office. It’s closer to law of the land than a campaign PowerPoint presentation. 

Deride it, say it avoids tough challenges, or insist that it robs the poor to pay the rich, but at least it’s in legislative language. It could be picked up and turned into law within weeks.

Moreover, Ryan has been selling his plan and his principles for fixing America’s taxing and spending for two years. Whether or not Americans know Ryan specifically – and many people interviewed in Norfolk, Va., this weekend did not – they do know broadly about his plan. As Ryan put it in his first speech as vice presidential nominee on Saturday, “the commitment Mitt Romney and I make to you is this: We won't duck the tough issues – we will lead.”

By picking Ryan, Romney is working to shift the conversation from where it is (e.g., sideshows such as which campaign’s "super PAC" ads are more vile) toward one about debt, deficits, and America’s financial future. In short, he’s giving Ryan’s call for an "affirmative" campaign – a clear choice between visions – a shot. 

That doesn't guarantee those are the topics that will consume the campaign between August and Election Day

But given the response to the Ryan pick, both sides appear to be spoiling for a fight on debt, deficits, and fiscal management. If those related topics do become the focus, Election 2012 in fact could give Washington direction toward solving the nation’s immediate fiscal nightmare. 

(In January, remember, $600 billion in higher taxes and lower government spending from expiring tax provisions and new spending cuts kick in, with the threat of throwing the economy back into recession.)

Winning this election with a real debate over these issues doesn’t give one party license to set about “conquering the other party” in the next presidency and session of Congress, as Ryan noted back in February. 

But absent rigorous debate about looming fiscal issues, Ryan warned, “you win the wrong kind of victory.”

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