Coming into this weekend, Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign had been the most vapid in terms of policy specifics in our nation’s history.
On Saturday, perhaps sensing the American people weren’t warming to a really rich guy who’s fuzzy on the math, he announced the selection of a running mate that ends any speculation about the Romney — and by extension, Republican — vision for America.
In picking Rep. Paul Ryan, the House budget committee chairman, Romney is making an admission: He needed to use the single most defining decision of his campaign to alter its basic trajectory. In other words, a safer choice — and there were plenty of those — would more likely have led to his defeat.
For months, the Romney campaign has bet the house on the hope that the sluggish economy and 8 percent unemployment would be enough to push independent voters to toss out Obama. After four months of tit-for-tat skirmishes on the campaign trail, the needle hasn’t moved. Polling has consistently shown Romney trailing President Barack Obama by between 2 and 4 percentage points nationally. A closer inspection of swing state polls shows Obama with somewhat larger leads in a majority of the dozen states that will ultimately decide the election.
By its very nature, the Ryan pick is an admission that this is not a winning strategy. A referendum on a president who voters perceive as personally likable, who has strong foreign policy credentials and who has avoided major scandal would likely result in a second Obama term.
So now Mitt Romney acknowledges he must make this election a choice between himself and Obama. It is a much more difficult strategy to execute than sitting back and waiting for angry unemployed voters to do the work for you.
To create such a contrast, Romney has turned to the most radical elements in the Republican party.
From this day forward, Romney and Ryan will have to convince the nation that Medicare would be better as a voucher program. They will have to defend privatizing Social Security, as Ryan proposed in 2010 (and subsequently backed off of in 2011, bowing to the reality that any partisan plan for reshaping Social Security is political suicide). They will have to explain how such a radically conservative and austere federal budget will still yield the basic necessities — major investments in infrastructure, research and innovation — to keep pace with China.
The risk is all the more heightened when you look at how Americans respond to specific proposals Ryan has made. On Medicare, 53 percent of us would prefer to see little or no changes to the program. Ryan proposes to end Medicare as we know it and convert it into a voucher system that pays seniors to obtain their own coverage and caps how much those vouchers are worth far below the rising costs of medical care. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated Ryan’s plan would cost the average senior an extra $6,400 per year for health care by 2022.
Who’s going to break that news to grandma?
Ryan’s proposal to cut $6 trillion in federal spending and reduce taxes by $4 trillion at the same time might sound appealing on the top line. It becomes considerably less appealing when people are asked whether the federal government should cut back on things like food safety inspectors.
Average voters aren’t likely to jeopardize the sanctity of the American hamburger.
And average Americans are even less likely to authorize these kinds of radical changes when they realize they are really a means to enable huge tax cuts for corporations and the very wealthy at little or no benefit to themselves, as the Ryan tax slashing half of his budget proposes.
With all of that, Ryan’s selection seems a watershed moment for the rising force inside Republican politics: A true believer, which Romney never truly was, has been called upon to salvage a campaign otherwise headed to defeat.
Whether the Tea Party’s radical agenda, which has never before borne the scrutiny of a national presidential campaign, will hold water is an open question.
As for Mitt Romney, it speaks volumes that his campaign finds the intellectual justification it has so clearly lacked from someone other than Romney himself.
Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. His column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Contact him at email@example.com.