Paul Ryan and the right’s long game

The V.P. selection of conservative dreams is about a lot more than boosting the GOP's chances this fall

Topics: War Room,

Paul Ryan’s selection as Mitt Romney’s running mate could have real electoral implications in November. This in and of itself would be unusual.

Modern campaign history shows that a vice-presidential candidate generally has little to no effect on the outcome. Under the best-case scenario, he or she might provide a modest, concentrated boost to the ticket; under the worst-case scenario, he or she can cause damage that’s broader, but still not that severe.

Ryan is a somewhat unique V.P. pick because his resume, personality, life story and geographic base aren’t really what landed him on Romney’s ticket. His budget blueprint did, though, and the basic principles behind it – dramatic changes in social safety net programs, in the tax code, and in the government’s basic spending priorities – will now dominate the fall campaign.

Republicans hope this will imbue their ticket with a feeling of purpose and mission, that swing voters will be inspired to see Romney and Ryan as a pair of courageous truth-tellers intent on tackling a Serious Issue. Democrats  hope those same voters will be alarmed by, say, Ryan’s call to turn Medicare into a voucher program, or by the massive cuts that would be required to make his numbers add up. Either way, the GOP’s vice-presidential nominee figures to play a central role in the 2012 race’s outcome.

But the electoral implications of the Ryan pick will extend well beyond November, because today’s developments also say something about Ryan’s place in the Republican Party and its future.

Again, he’s different in this way than the average vice-presidential nominee. Being selected for a national ticket is a huge career boost for any politician. The track record of V.P. candidates going on to win the White House on their own isn’t that great (George H.W. Bush, chosen by Ronald Reagan 32 years ago, was the last to do it), but they almost all emerge as national players. Often, this presents them with opportunities they never would have had otherwise. Joe Lieberman probably wouldn’t have run for president in 2004 without his stint on Al Gore’s ticket, Lloyd Bentsen wouldn’t have had Democrats begging him to run in 1992 if he hadn’t accepted Michael Dukakis’ offer in 1988, and if she hadn’t been picked by John McCain, Sarah Palin wouldn’t be … whatever she is today.

But the Ryan pick seems more politically significant than any recent V.P. selection because of how it came about. Ryan was the subject of a concerted pressure campaign by prominent conservatives and grass-roots activists, who specifically wanted him on the ticket. This, in turn, was an outgrowth of the way in which Ryan has almost single-handedly given the Obama-era right an economic vision around which to rally.

It wasn’t long ago that Ryan’s budget ideas were seen as outside the mainstream of his own party, too politically toxic for the GOP to etch into its platform. But the election of Obama radicalized the conservative movement, which embarked on a campaign not just to fight the president’s agenda relentlessly but to cleanse its own ranks.  Ryan’s plans offered these conservatives both a substantive-seeming alternative to Obama’s proposals and a way of coming to terms with the failure of the Bush years — if only we’d been following this road map, we’d never have ended up with Obama! Thus have they elevated him to hero status on the right over the past few years.

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This process has been abetted by once-pragmatic Republicans. Previously, they might have spoken up to temper it, but in the face of a restive base and the real threat of primary challenges, they acquiesced to the right’s Ryan fervor. The grief that rained down on Newt Gingrich for calling Ryan’s Medicare plan “right-wing social engineering” last year was an example to any Republican with an instinct to question the wisdom of embracing Ryan-ism. Both his Medicare plan and budget blueprint have passed the House with near-universal Republican support.

And now Romney has acquiesced too. The most powerful and influential conservative forces within the Republican Party wanted this pick – badly. And because of his own shaky standing with those forces and his deteriorating position in the race against Obama, Romney found himself ill-positioned to say no to them. Vice-presidential nominees almost never come with the level of intraparty enthusiasm that Ryan generates. There was no comparable push for Palin, Lieberman, Al Gore, Dan Quayle, Bentsen, Geraldine Ferraro or just about any other V.P. nominee of the past few decades.

In this sense, Ryan’s selection is confirmation of his rarefied stature within the GOP. It’s a statement of the degree to which conservative leaders and activists see him and his ideas as their future. Surely, they wanted him on the ticket because they believe it will help their cause this year and that he’d keep a watchful eye on a President Romney. But they also understand that the national spotlight Ryan is now entering will radically enhance his future political prospects – that even if the ticket loses this year, he’s likely to emerge as a top-tier contender for the 2016 nomination. They are playing a long game here, too.

Granted, plenty could go wrong for Ryan these next few months. Maybe he’ll stumble in an embarrassing way, or turn in a dreary debate performance, leading conservatives to look for another Face of the Future. The example of Jack Kemp, whose selection as Bob Dole’s running mate in 1996 briefly thrilled the right, is worth keeping in mind; by the end of that campaign, many conservatives had turned on Kemp after he made a point of refusing to play an attack dog role against Bill Clinton, and his stock for the 2000 race plummeted. (He ended up not running.) For all we know, this could be Ryan’s fate.

But even if Ryan’s budget proves an albatross for Romney and the GOP ticket goes down, it’s not hard to see conservatives rationalizing away the defeat: The problem was Romney couldn’t sell the message – that’s why the next time we need Ryan at the top of the ticket! They’ve believed for a few years now that Ryan-ism should be their party’s future, and today’s announcement is a major step toward making it so.

Steve Kornacki
Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

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